Future Leaders Section - Sidebar Series Interview
Interview with the Honorable M. Teresa Sarmina, Court of Common Pleas, Philadelphia
By Matthew C. Monroe, Esq.|
The Honorable M. Teresa Sarmina Judge Sarmina has presided over some of Philadelphia’s highest profile criminal cases in in recent memory, including that of Msgr. William Lynn, who was convicted of endangering children by covering up for predator priests. She gained attention when granting a last-minute appeal to stay the execution of convicted murder Terrance Williams after discovering prosecutors withheld exculpatory evidence at Mr. Williams’ 1986 trial.
Q: What is the most common misperception that trial lawyers have about juries?

A: I think that they don’t give them enough respect. Occasionally a jury will come back and shock you whether you were thinking it was going to come back guilty, and it comes back not guilty, or the other way around … but I think that you just have to try to pick the best jury that you can. If you’re an experienced trial attorney, you’re going to have a sense of who to get rid of, who you cannot live with, and then just trust them and give them that respect. They appreciate it.

Q: What do you tell lawyers who are new to trying case; what advice do you have for them?

A: There is no excuse for not being prepared. It is something that is always very bothersome to me, seeing attorneys where I sit, which is mostly in the homicide program, to have any attorney come in and not be as prepared as he or she should be. That is whether it is the prosecutor or the defense attorney. It is inexcusable not to know your case inside and out.

Q: You have presided over some high profile cases, especially in the last year. How should attorneys handling a high-profile case conduct themselves?

A: It is actually a benefit to not try your case in the press, because every day you have to try to figure out how to go out there and pitch it. It can be very distracting from keeping your eye on the ball. In both of the high-profile cases I had this year, we made a very concerted effort to say; ‘it’s a case, what’s the law, what are the facts, what are the rulings?’ and to try to, as much as possible, shut out the fact that the media was there. You can get caught up in all these things that can distract you from what your job is. If you’re the attorney, your job is to represent your client. Are you doing that because the media is in your favor? The jurors are told not to read anything. Even if the media is all in your favor, if the jury comes out against you, well, you lost . . . Any high-pressure case is going to take a lot of hours, a lot of preparation, it’s the stresses of the trial, and that’s every single day.

Q: How do you keep up the stamina when you’re at trial, because I am sure as the judge you are dealing with just as much work as the attorneys?

A: Sometimes even more, because on some of the cases they have two, three, four attorneys on one side. As a Common Pleas Court Judge, I have one law clerk and we were trying to deal with absolutely everything that came in; reading everything that came in, reading the cases that they cited, trying to find other cases, and that’s from both sides. A lot of diet soda with caffeine.

Q: When you were first practicing as an attorney, is there any advice you wish you had gotten but didn’t get?

A: When I first was a trial attorney I was a prosecutor. I always thought I was going to be a defense attorney, but the PD’s office didn’t call and the DA’s did, and I wanted to be in one or the other. I knew I wanted to do criminal law. Sometimes, it was just getting too caught up in the zealousness of it and not stepping back and looking at the bigger picture and being more conciliatory . . . But I think we should always be open. In the civil context, what’s in the best interest of your client, maybe negotiating a better settlement. What is the fair and just result?

Q: When an attorney is trying their first case, should they let the judge know it’s their first case?

A: It can’t hurt if you ask to see the judge at sidebar and say, look, it’s my first case, and I just wanted to let your honor know. Maybe the judge will be nicer. But if you haven’t prepared and it’s obvious, then that’s not going get you a free pass. You might get a little bit of feedback if you’re looking for it.

Matthew Monroe is an attorney at Sheller, P. C. in Philadelphia and a Future Leaders Board Representative for the Eastern District to the PAJ Board of Governors.