Tiffany Palmer: Person of the Year

Tiffany Palmer with her family.

For years Philadelphians have known Tiffany Palmer as a visible member of the LGBTQ community, frequently at events with her wife and daughter. A family law and civil rights attorney, Palmer often worked on complex LGBT cases. A partner and founding member of Jerner & Palmer, P.C., a Germantown law firm specializing in family law and estate planning, Palmer also founded the first LGBT family law direct services program in the country.

There was intense excitement over Palmer’s candidacy within the community. How big a role LGBTQ votes played in the election was unclear, because queer voters are not tabulated in exit polling. Palmer said, “It is hard to know the direct impact [of the LGBTQ vote], but my numbers in Center City and Mt. Airy where there are larger LGBTQ populations of voters was very high — coming out as the first- or second-highest vote-getter in many divisions.”

When she was running for the Court of Common Pleas, Palmer explained how her background in family law would benefit Philadelphians if she were elected. After 20 years as an attorney, she said, “I believe now is the time for me to step up for public service in our courts as a judge. I believe I have something unique to give to improve our system of justice.”

Palmer said judges are integral to how the system of justice works and also to who gets justice — a question frequently raised for LGBTQ people when they enter that system, for whatever reason.

“We cannot forget the unique and important role judges play in our family court system,” Palmer said. “The majority of people in Philadelphia face custody, child support cases and domestic violence in family court without an attorney. It is up to the judge to be sure they understand the proceedings, to ask the right questions and to be sure they have a chance to be heard. With my legal background, I have an understanding of the law and a caring commitment and compassion to those coming to the court for help.”

Palmer won the primary in May and was elected in November with the highest number of votes of any Court of Common Pleas candidate. She told PGN she was “excited to be able to win by running a campaign based on progressive values and integrity.”

As she prepares to take the bench, Palmer talked with PGN about her campaign and what she hopes to accomplish in this next chapter of her life in the law.

Palmer said the campaign itself had been grueling for her family but that they were excited she had won the judgeship.

“My wife, Lee Carpenter, has been my partner in life for 20 years, and I could not have achieved this goal without her incredible support all along the way,” Palmer said. “She has been there for me since the beginning of my career as a public interest lawyer. She believed in me and always told me I could win the election, even when the odds seemed otherwise. Our daughter is very relieved that I will no longer be gone in the evenings and weekends at campaign events. My parents and sisters are very proud and happy for me.”

Grassroots campaigns are increasingly the only way to get progressives on the ballot and into the political arena. Palmer said, “For me, running a judicial campaign that directly targeted voters themselves was always the type of campaign I had envisioned.”

Voters have said the judiciary is the aspect of government they least understand.

“We set our own course and worked to reach voters and educate them about the importance of the judiciary and in electing highly qualified judges,” Palmer explained. “I was able to connect with voters about the importance of Family Court and electing judges with experience in family law and a commitment to promoting equal justice for Philadelphia’s families.”

As an attorney, Palmer said her most pivotal family law case was in 2015, with far-reaching impact for LGBTQ families. “Even though I was not representing an LGBTQ client, the Baby S. case I litigated in 2014-2015 resulted in a ruling that gestational surrogacy contracts are legally enforceable in Pennsylvania,” she explained. “This case has had a major impact on LGBTQ family-building by ensuring surrogacy remains an option in Pennsylvania.”

Palmer added, “I have also handled many custody cases over the past 20 years. I have also finalized more than 500 adoptions for LGBTQ families.”

Adoption cases were her final cases as an attorney. “I was sworn in on Dec. 20 by Judge Walter Olszewski, the supervising judge of Family Court,” she said. “It was very exciting and relieving that this day had finally arrived. I had my mother and my wife with me, as well as some close friends and colleagues. It was also bittersweet as I had finished my last five adoption cases of my career as an attorney. I will miss these cases the most, as I have truly enjoyed helping my clients secure and legally protect their families.”

Palmer said her new role is equally, if differently, crucial for the community.

“I feel it is critically important that the judiciary reflect the demographics of the populations that come before the courts,” she said. “Philadelphia has a diverse judiciary, and LGBTQ judges are a part of that. I am proud that I will be another openly LGBTQ judge to join the First Judicial District.”

Palmer said she has specific goals as a judge for what she wants to achieve.

“The most important thing I can do as a judge is to ensure that those that come before the courts are afforded equal justice,” she said. “My role as a Family Court judge is especially important as the cases that come into that court have such a profound impact on people’s personal lives. My immediate goal is to help the court address custody cases and help families get the answers they need from the courts to structure their lives accordingly.”

Palmer added, “I also want to work to continue to ensure our courts are a safe and welcoming place for all the many kinds of people that come before it, including LGBTQ families and gender-nonconforming people.”

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Victoria A. Brownworth is a Pulitzer Prize-nominated award-winning journalist whose work has appeared in The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Baltimore Sun, DAME, The Advocate, Bay Area Reporter and Curve among other publications. She was among the OUT 100 and is the author and editor of more than 20 books, including the Lambda Award-winning Coming Out of Cancer: Writings from the Lesbian Cancer Epidemic and Ordinary Mayhem: A Novel, and the award-winning From Where They Sit: Black Writers Write Black Youth and Too Queer: Essays from a Radical Life.