The chief justice of the state Supreme Court has died.
Max Baer, who was just two months short of a December retirement, died unexpectedly on Sept. 30 at his home in Pittsburgh’s South Hills. He was 74.
“[Baer] loved helping children,” Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice David Wecht said. “He had an acute, very strong interest in the welfare of children. And he really revolutionized child welfare and juvenile dependency in the state of Pennsylvania — he was constantly at work and constantly energetic.”
Baer, who was Jewish, grew up in Dormont, earned his bachelor’s degree from the University of Pittsburgh in 1971 and received a law degree from Duquesne University in 1975.
Baer served as a deputy in the state attorney general’s office from 1975 to 1980, then worked in private practice as an attorney. He was elected a county Common Pleas judge in 1989 and became a Family Court Division administrative judge in 1993.
He was elected to Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court in 2003 and became chief justice last year.
“This is a tremendous loss for the court and all of Pennsylvania,” said Justice Debra Todd, who is set to become the court’s chief justice.
“Pennsylvania has lost a jurist who served the court and the citizens of the commonwealth with distinction. Chief Justice Baer was an influential and intellectual jurist whose unwavering focus was on administering fair and balanced justice.”
Wecht met Baer more than 25 years ago, when Baer was still working in the Common Pleas court. At the time, Wecht was courting a junior probation officer, and Baer put in a good word for him, Wecht recalled.
“Twenty-seven years and four adult kids later, it all worked out,” Wecht said. “He gave a good reference for me. And we often chuckled about that story.”
Wecht said he was saddened by Baer’s sudden death.
“I was interacting face to face with Max Baer a lot,” Wecht told the Chronicle. “He was at the top of his game. He was happy … he was highly productive and a great leader for the court.”
Judge Kim Eaton, the administrative judge for Allegheny County’s Family Court Division, told the Tribune Review that Baer’s impact remains an integral part of that division’s system. Initiatives put in place under Baer’s stewardship continue to shape court operations, she said.
“He’s one of those guys who would correct you when you called him by his title,” Eaton said. “He was a Pittsburgher; he was a yinzer.”
“I’m extremely saddened to learn that Chief Justice Baer passed away,” Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf said in a statement “He was a respected and esteemed jurist with decades of service to our courts and our commonwealth. I am grateful for his contributions and leadership in the Supreme Court.”
Duquesne University President Ken Gormley also eulogized Baer.
“Max Baer was a judge’s judge, a lawyer’s lawyer, an extremely proud husband, father and grandfather, and a warm, caring human being who believed in the sacred nature of public service and in the solemn responsibility of all lawyers to use the legal profession to do good for others,” Gormley said in a statement. “His loss leaves a massive void in the Pittsburgh legal community, in the national community of jurists and in the Duquesne family that admired him so much.”
Ben Baer, one of Baer’s two sons, works in the legal field, too — as an attorney in private practice in Philadelphia.
“He said, ‘Be a teacher, anything but a lawyer,’” Ben Baer laughed. “But I followed in his footsteps, and he was supportive.”
“I’m not just saying this and I’m not exaggerating, [but] he was an even better father, grandfather and uncle,” Ben Baer, whose family helped found Beth El Congregation of the South Hills generations ago, told the Chronicle. “And he really was a fixture in a large, interconnected family with western Pennsylvania roots.”
Ben Baer said his father never missed a Pitt football game, often bringing Ben and his brother Andy, who is now a lieutenant colonel in the Air Force and stationed in California.
“He was going to do more, seeing the world,” Ben Baer said. “He wanted to continue to write. He wanted to continue to teach. And he wanted to continue to work in the field of child welfare.”
Rabbi Mark Mahler, rabbi emeritus at Temple Emmanuel of South Hills, led an opening prayer at a memorial ceremony last week for Baer. Mahler — whose son Moshe is friends with Ben Baer — co-officiated with the chief justice at his son Ben’s wedding.
“He was a lovely guy,” Mahler told the Chronicle, “eminently approachable and engaging.”
Rabbi Alex Greenbaum of Beth El officiated at a private family funeral last week.
“The chief justice was a mensch,” Greenbaum said. “He had a good Jewish heart, a good Jewish soul and raised a good Jewish family.” PJC
Justin Vellucci is a freelance writer living in Pittsburgh.