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Paul A. Simmons

Paul A. Simmons

United States District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania (Retired)

Born: Monogahela, Pennsylvania-August 31, 1921.
Education: University of Pittsburgh (B.A. 1946) graduated with High Honors; Harvard Law School (J.D. 1949)
With his appointment on April 17, 1978, Judge Simmons became President Carter's first African-American judicial appointee and the first African-American United States District Court Judge for the Western District of Pennsylvania. Judge Simmons retired on January 1, 1991.

Paul A. Simmons was born and raised in Monogahela, Pennsylvania. His father, Perry C. Simmons, was originally a barber who learned the building trades and became a small house and cement contractor. His mother, Lilly P. Simmons, was an elementary school teacher. Judge Simmons is the second eldest child of four. His siblings all pursued careers in education.

After high school graduation, Judge Simmons worked in the housing construction industry until 1941, when he went to work in the freight car repair shop of the Pennsylvania Railroad. He first became exposed to the law in 1942, as the result of an industrial accident which necessitated the above-the-knee amputation of his right leg. A lawyer informed Simmons that since he was not at his work station at the time of the accident, the railroad would assert contributory negligence, and that the Federal Employers' Liability Act would not apply to his case.

Undaunted Simmons' mother told him not to give up and sent him to the Allegheny County Law Library in Pittsburgh to find a similar railroad case in which the claimant recovered damages. For the next three weeks, with the help of the Allegheny County Law Librarian, Judge Simmons read dozens of cases until he found a Texas case in which the facts were almost identical to his own. After sending a copy of the case and a letter to the railroad's claim agent, he received an appropriate settlement. In addition, the railroad agreed to purchase an artificial limb for Judge Simmons and to continue his employment.

Shortly after his accident, the Director of the Pennsylvania Bureau of Vocational Rehabilitation offered Simmons a four year scholarship to the University of Pittsburgh because of his high score on a vocational aptitude test. The railroad agreed to let Simmons work three days a week during the school year and full-time during the summer while he was attending college. During his time in college, Simmons decided to become a lawyer. After graduating from the University of Pittsburgh with high honors, Judge Simmons attended and graduated from Harvard Law School.

Judge Simmons began his professional career as a law professor at the School of Law at South Carolina College and later, the North Carolina Central University Law School. Notably, while he was teaching, Simmons advised his students on tactics necessary to strike down the "separate but equal" doctrine established by Plessy vs. Ferguson. For example, Judge Simmons suggested that such a public school desegregation case be brought in an impoverished school district where the tax base could not simultaneously support both adequate white schools and adequate black schools that were separate but equal. This tactic was brought to the attention of the NAACP attorneys and eventually used in Briggs v. Elliott, a companion case to Brown v. Board of Education.

Beginning in 1956, and over a period of seventeen years, Judge Simmons was a very active trial and appellate lawyer in Southwestern Pennsylvania. Judge Simmons was primarily a civil litigator and was involved in personal injury, commercial law, anti trust, administrative law, and other civil law litigation. Moreover, he represented criminal defendants in over twenty-five homicide cases, in addition to defending persons accused of other serious crimes.

In 1973, Judge Simmons was appointed to the Court of Common Pleas of Washington County, Pennsylvania and sat as the Presiding Judge of the Orphans Court Division. In November 1975, he was elected to a full ten year term on that court and became the Presiding Judge of the Orphans Court Division. On April 17, 1978, Judge Simmons was appointed to the district court in the Western District of Pennsylvania, becoming the first federal judge in Pennsylvania to go through the merit selection process.

Judge Simmons writes: "The sum total of all of my life experiences plus some God-given 'mother-wit' and the continuing blessing of the Almighty prepared me to be a judge." To all aspiring lawyers and judges, Judge Simmons recommends reading "the complete works of William Shakespeare to learn the complexities of human nature."

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