PITTSBURGH – Max Baer, the chief justice of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, has died only months before he was set to retire, the court confirmed Saturday. He was 74.
Baer died overnight at his home near Pittsburgh, the court said in a news release. The court didn't give a reason for his death but called his “sudden passing" a “tremendous loss for the court and all of Pennsylvania.”
The court said Justice Debra Todd now becomes chief justice “as the justice of longest and continuous service on the court." She is the first female chief justice in the commonwealth's history, a court spokesperson confirmed.
“Chief Justice Baer was an influential and intellectual jurist whose unwavering focus was on administering fair and balanced justice," Todd said in the release. “He was a tireless champion for children, devoted to protecting and providing for our youngest and most vulnerable citizens.”
Gov. Tom Wolf ordered state flags at commonwealth facilities, public buildings and grounds lowered to half-staff, saying he was “extremely saddened" by the death of such a “respected and esteemed jurist with decades of service to our courts and our commonwealth."
Baer, a Duquesne Law graduate, was an Allegheny County family court judge and an administrative judge in family court before he was elected to the high court in 2003 and became its chief justice last year. Baer also served as deputy attorney general for Pennsylvania from 1975 to 1980 and was in private practice before entering the judiciary.
Earlier this year, Baer was part of the 5-2 majority as the Pennsylvania Supreme Court upheld a wide expansion of mail-in voting in Pennsylvania.
Baer was set to retire at the end of 2022 after reaching the mandatory retirement age of 75. The court said the seat had already been slated to be on the 2023 ballot, and “in the interim the governor may choose to make an appointment, subject to confirmation by the Senate.” Baer was elected as a Democrat and his death leaves a 4-2 Democratic majority on the high court.
Duquesne's president, Ken Gormley, told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that Baer believed justices shouldn’t be public figures and that he therefore shied away from the limelight, using his position to uplift others in the profession.
“He was collegial, he worked really hard to have the court function as a family, and he led by example,” Gormley said. “He was the most caring person imaginable — always put others first and celebrated their successes. He hated pettiness. He had no time for pettiness.”