Friendly Judgment in Philadelphia

Giovanni Campbell,
Giovanni Campbell

Quakers have had a complicated relationship with the legal system. Regardless of whether the year is 1762 or 2013, or whether the location is Great Britain or America, Friends have been entangled in the criminal justice system, typically due to their peculiar witness to the testimonies of the faith. Rarely do Friends find themselves in the position of handing down judgment and punishing others, but an exception may soon be coming in Philadelphia, in the form of Giovanni Campbell, a member of Germantown Meeting now running for judge in the Court of Common Pleas.

Giovanni was born in Panama City, Panama, to working-class parents. His mother was a special education teacher, and his father was a laborer and manager of warehouses. When he was 12 he moved with his mother to New York City to join his maternal grandmother. Though he had visited the U.S. numerous times, living there was a different experience, and he was soon confronting cultural ideas that were challenging and confusing.

“For all the Latino people, I was black: they didn’t really see me as Latino like they were. But all the black people saw me as Latino and not really black like they were, so I never really fit into the frameworks in a way that was convenient,” Giovanni said, as we spoke in the early morning light outside of Germantown Meeting before worship.

Though challenged to translate himself into American culture, Giovanni found a home in swimming, diving, and teaching others to do the same. This work became a process of both personal and community discovery as Giovanni went from pool to pool in the many neighborhoods of New York, seeing first-hand the disparities and differences than just a block or two can make. Beyond discovering the realities of living in New York City, Giovanni discovered his own gift for empowering people, and the pleasure he took from seeing someone swim their first lap on their own.

From the days of the first Friends, judges have played vital roles in shaping how the community has been able to organize and express itself. Without the generosity of Judge Thomas Fell, George Fox and Margaret Fell would never have had the sanctuary of Swarthmore Hall to organize the Quaker movement and avoid the harassment of the police and others. Moreover, if not for a judge pejoratively referring to George Fox as a “Quaker” for his tendency to “tremble before the word of the Lord”, Friends may have never become commonly known as Quakers. However, for Giovanni, the intersection of Quakerism and the practice of law has much more to do with the honest search for truth than anything else.

After doing his undergraduate education in the city and state university programs of New York, Giovanni Campbell came to Temple University in Philadelphia to study law. It was during his time that he first encountered Quakerism through relatives of his then-girlfriend (and later wife). He was struck by the centrality of social justice within Quakerism, its openness to other faith traditions, and emphasis on what Giovanni describes as, “the intellectually honest pursuit of truth.” After settling in Philadelphia, he and his wife decided to become members and raise their kids in Germantown Meeting and send them to the school started by the meeting.

Throughout his career, Giovanni Campbell has made the community his focus, locating his offices in some of the disenfranchised neighborhoods in Northeast Philadelphia in order to work more directly with local residents. One client of Giovanni’s, a young autistic boy, was being underserved and some would say, neglected, by the public school system. His curriculum had remained the same for years, and was operating at a non-verbal level. Giovanni worked to win him the right to attend a specialized school for autistic kids in the district, and since then, the student has made great progress, speaking without the help of a machine. He has made even more progress in the year or so since the ruling than in all the previous years of schooling combined.

In describing his motivations for becoming judge, Giovanni Campbell continually comes back to a belief that he can be in a position to provide justice for many who are under-privileged in the current system. “I found myself encountering the failures of the system and saying, ‘One day, I’m going to do something to change that.’” While hesitant about becoming involved in the political process, eventually tit became clear to Giovanni that he was being called to the bench, as that was his best opportunity to create a positive change.

In describing his view of the criminal justice system, Giovanni Campbell paints a stark picture, “It’s so adversarial. I almost think about it as a contest. A contest similar in fairness to that between the early Christians and the lions in the coliseum.” He went on to elaborate how courts in the U.S. could be more like those in Europe, which empower more independent investigation by the judiciary (as opposed to the police or district attorney). Such a system emphasizes coming to the truth of the matter, not pitting one argument against another to discover which party can buy the better legal representation to argue their side. Giovanni’s career has been defined by his representation of the indigent, under-privileged, and disabled in Philadelphia, so he has seen many such instances of David vs. Goliath.

Giovanni would be joining an especially problematic court system in Philadelphia. Make-up of the bench is disproportionately white when compared to the racial make-up of the city and too often these public servants are divorced from the communities in which they are ruling. Moreover, corruption and questionable ethics frequent rear their head in Philadelphia’s system. Earlier this month it was revealed that a judge who recently acquitted a police officer accused of hitting a woman in the face (with strong video evidence to support the accusation), was in fact married to a police officer! According to Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts and a number of law professors in the Philadelphia, the judge should have recused himself from the case. The U.S. Department of Justice has now been asked to investigate the case. This is nothing new to Philadelphians, just the most recent tale in a long litany of questionable judgments by those holding the public trust.

It’s never easy to live outside the box, but Giovanni has managed to build a career from spanning worlds and taking the road less travelled. One can only hope that this has prepared him for the possibility of becoming on May 21 the first naturalized citizen, and the first Quaker in almost 100 years to become a different kind of judge in Philadelphia.

4 thoughts on “Friendly Judgment in Philadelphia

  1. I very much appreciate this piece about Giovanni Campbell, and I hope that he wins. I doubt, however, that we have reached the stage in race relations that he can be seen as simply a lawyer running for a judgeship and not as an ethically black person–particularly when this Quaker-produced item refers to the “whites” who dominate the bench in a city where African
    Americans are so numerous.

    Judge Fell, by the way, was not the only early judge who assisted Quakers in the 1650s. Another one was Anthony Pearson of Durham in the north of England. Unlike Fell, Pearson was a Friend and wrote at least a much reprinted pamphlet defending the Quaker position on tithing. Unfortunately, there is no good study of his life, something that leaves us with too litle knowledge of him.

  2. I think it is important to be aware of the impact that “race” or skin color still plays in our society. I think it is far more difficult for a person whose skin color is very light or white to be aware of the subtle (and not so subtle, at times) social injustices that exist in our society, particularly for those who lack the privilege that most of us take for granted without even having to think about it. Skin color and other physical attributes due make a difference in our society, maybe less so than 60 years ago, but still a difference. And if the negative impact of physical attributes are compounded by economic deprivation, the negative effects are often more apparent. It’s important for Quakers to remind themselves that most of us come from or are part of a privileged segment of our society. Attorney Campbell’s life story needs to be recognized for what it is, and for the difficulties he has had to face because of not only the color of his skin but because of his ethnic origins. I wish you well, Attorney Campbell in your bid for judgship.

  3. As someone who knows Giovanni Campbell personally as well as being an attorney myself, I can only say this: Philadelphia could not get a better judge. Everything they say about him is true. He really is very socially conscious and his love for justice is real. He is also the most intellectually gifted person I’ve ever known. Just my two cents. To know him is to love him.

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