A personal interview with President Judge Idee Fox

President Judge Idee Fox.

As President Judge of Philadelphia’s Court of Common Pleas, Idee Fox is responsible for implementing court rules, assigning newly elected or appointed judges to one of the divisions of the court, and supervising Election Court in order to allow all citizens to exercise their right to vote, among other duties. Having served as President Judge since 2018, Fox first won election to the Court of Common Pleas in 1995 and was retained in 2005 and 2015. She began her tenure as a judge in the Family Court Division, where she served from 1996 to 2008, before moving to the Civil Trial Division and becoming Supervising Judge there.

Fox grew up in South Philadelphia to a Jewish father and an Italian mother, and she was the first in her family to attend college. After graduating from the State University of New York at Stony Brook and then Washington University in St. Louis School of Law, she returned to Philadelphia and began working in private practice before running for judge.

PGN spoke with Fox about her life and career, the importance of knowing who you are, and the shift in LGBTQ acceptance in the legal field.

You recently did a ceremonial swearing in of young LGBT lawyers. What were you thinking at that moment?

I was thinking how young they were and what a future they have ahead of them. And I was trying to convey the message of how important it is to be a lawyer and to have the skills you have and to use them for the improvement of the society we live in. I also always try to explain that we’re in a bubble here in Philadelphia and you have to be conscious of that. To me it was great to be in a room among family. And that’s how I looked at it. They were family, the judges on the bench were family, and that was a nice positive way to look at that. 

The swearing in ceremony of new LGBTQ lawyers. L-R: Stephen Kulp, Olivia Hester, Kimberly Kaelin, Alexander Perry, Hon. Ann M. Butchart, Hon. Idee C. Fox, Hon Abbe F. Fletman, Hon. Daniel J. Anders, Alexandra Sobieski, Nandani Deendyal, Dean Daniel Filler, Gregory O. Yorgey-Girdy.

Do you realize the symbolism of the out President Judge swearing in young LGBT lawyers, and do you think about your early time when that wasn’t possible?

It can sometimes move me to tears because you look back and it makes you feel much better about things having changed over the years. We’ve seen it. That historical marker being dedicated to the Philadelphia Gay News is another example; the crowd that you got at the dedication ceremony — the political officials and the candidates there — that to me was symbolic of where we were and where we’ve come. 

Let me take you back a little. There’s a story floating around that you knew you wanted to be a lawyer at nine years old, and if I’m correct your mother wrote a letter to a judge asking if that was possible.

Yes, I did want to become a lawyer at an early age because my parents both had only a fifth-grade education, and I guess I sort of watched them. We went through good times and a lot of bad times economically, and I don’t know if you remember, in those days they didn’t have food stamps. They had food that you would pick up at the armory that was stamped; it was for people who qualified for welfare. Cheese and powdered eggs and those things. And we had those. My mom was Italian, she was a great cook, and she made due with what we had. But I guess I saw, with my parents, that being a lawyer meant you could be in control of the way people treated you and the way they treated your family. So that’s how I looked at it. 

Either at the end of high school or the beginning of college, my mother wrote a letter to Judge Lisa Richette, who had just been elected. And my mother wrote ‘my daughter wants to be a lawyer, is there any advice you can give?’ I don’t have my mother’s letter, but Lisa Richette wrote the nicest letter back to my mother. And when my mother passed away, in her belongings we found that letter. And by coincidence, Lisa Richette was sitting in Family Court at that time. And I got to bring her the letter and show it to her. She was symbolic for a lot of different levels. She read the letter, and her comment was ‘yeah, I do write a good letter, don’t I?’ It made my mother very very happy.

I knew Judge Richette. She was one of the earlier endorsements that PGN made and she was supportive of the LGBT community. You too have many things that you have personally pioneered. At your age, you were among the first group of women to become lawyers. That alone was sort of amazing.

Well, there were people before me who were maybe the only women in their class, or one of only two. I grew up in South Philadelphia but I went to law school in St. Louis, Missouri at Washington University, and in my law school class, the big part of our class was that we were the largest number of women in the history of the school, which was 25%, which was really amazing. 

And then I got out of law school and I came back to Philadelphia, and a friend of mine told me to look up his father who was a lawyer about how to find a job. It wasn’t easy to find jobs then; in those days if you didn’t go to an Ivy League school you weren’t going to get into a big firm, and if you went to a smaller school or an out of town law school you’d go to a small firm. But I came back, and I didn’t go to Temple, I didn’t go to Rutgers, I didn’t go to Villanova. And they’d say “Washington University? Why’s it in St. Louis and called Washington University?” which now is funny because it’s one of the top 20 law schools in the country. But I went to see this friend’s father, and he was an old time practitioner, and he said to me “maybe you should think about becoming a secretary with your skills rather than a lawyer” and I tell you, at the time, I’d say my first two years back from law school were pretty depressing times. So it was a struggle to find employment and to find a niche for practicing law. 

I remember that time very well in Philadelphia. There was a law organization for gay people called the Philadelphia Gay Lawyers Association. And the thing that they were fighting the most was that major law firms wouldn’t accept people if they were openly gay or lesbian. So most lawyers had to be in the closet. Do you remember that time period, and what was your feeling? 

I remember it very well. For my background, I was a class jumper. I jumped from being in a limited education family, who lived day by day sometimes, into a profession that drives you up into a different class. For me, when I graduated in 1977 and even being in St. Louis during the mid-70s, and coming back to Philadelphia and trying to get myself re-established after being away for 7 years, I felt sort of in a position where it was a fear of losing everything I worked for. It wasn’t even just not being hired by a big firm, but it was a fear of people saying ‘who are you, why are you?’ And I can’t say I didn’t get comments from people, little digs, like ‘we can sense that you’re gay’ or ‘I think she’s gay.’ It was a tough time where you really had to dig into yourself and survive how you could. And I was very lucky, I had a very supportive family, and my family was behind me and accepted me for who I was. So my struggles became much more professional than they did personal. That made things a lot easier. I think when you have that struggle on both fronts, it can be very difficult.

For me, it’s always an honor to speak to someone who is a pioneer. And the interesting thing about you, and people like you, is that you hear those sorts of backstabbing comments about being gay. And you don’t fully respond because you know they’ll fight back. Yet, you decided to put your name in to become a judge in 1995, knowing that people were whispering behind your back. That’s a pretty brave thing to do.

It’s funny you should say that. I don’t necessarily think of it as being brave then as much as it was a risk in business. It takes a while to run, it’s very difficult and it’s very expensive. So you make sacrifices in your practice and if you lose you have to bounce back. And I think in some ways that was much more frightening to me. And I don’t think of myself as a pioneer. It’s funny — for me, struggling was very personal, not necessarily to make a statement. It’s funny how we are where we are now, and suddenly you realize that you have made a statement. You don’t realize that when you’re going through a struggle when you’re young. To me it was still going ahead. And my mom taught me to be very upbeat about people and about life. It was like ‘I don’t want to be bitter’ and there’s slapdowns and comments, but you move on and you be who you are. And that’s how I’ve always lived my life. I am who I am.

Give me your progression from being in the closet to the point where you didn’t care anymore about whether people were whispering behind your back. 

To me it was a professional decision to stay in the closet. It was never a personal issue because I had family and friends, and I went out and had a good time. What I think is interesting is I was surrounded by a lot of colleagues who knew who I was and always accepted it. And I guess in some ways it was part of my life. They didn’t hesitate meeting my partner, they didn’t hesitate to see who I was. They knew who I was. I never hid who I was, I just didn’t say ‘being gay is who I am.’ I am who I am, and I’m gay. I think you know what imposter syndrome is, and this concern about being able to succeed. I think that’s hard when you’re a class jumper or you come from an area where you’re trying to survive. So I would say when I got to the point where I knew I had survived, and now everything after that was something different, then yeah, at that point, I stopped worrying about it.

Let’s get a little personal here. I love a good romance story. How’d you meet Elsa?

Fairmount Park Women’s Softball, god knows how many years ago. We stopped counting at three decades. But we were friends before we ended up being partners. But we met a long time ago. We were each with different people. Life casts you the way it does. Elsa had lost her partner of ten years to cancer, we’d stayed friends, and there it was. 

So give me the evolution of when you felt comfortable enough to bring Elsa to law firm functions, bar association functions, charity functions…

I think it was when Elsa stopped being shy. She’s retired now as a teacher. I think she had a shyness about her. She was a teacher, and we were in very different circles. And it was much easier for me to step into her circle than her to step into my circle. And I think when that shyness left, it was more comfortable. And the shyness left by her getting to know my close colleagues and being able to talk to them and get to know them, and them being very comfortable with it. So I think that was a big part of it. 

You first got elected judge in 1995, then in 2018 you were elected President Judge, supervising 93 other judges. And at that point, the organization of Philadephia Lesbian and Gay Lawyers comes to you and says they want to honor you with a cocktail party. And there you were for the first time being the out President Judge at a very public function. What were your thoughts at that point?

Really, I was sort of amazed. It was a wow moment. It was an opportunity to talk about what I thought was important, which is, again, always giving back and having a sense that you have to do that. I think what I spoke to that night was recognizing the bubble we were in and trying to make sure that everyone knew that. The struggle wasn’t over, but my being able to be recognized as the president judge meant a great deal to a lot of different people. I’m sorry my parents didn’t live to see it, but it was very moving. And I don’t know if you know this, but I have an identical twin sister, and I lost her about ten years ago. And I have to say, she was a big supporter of mine. So when you have an identical twin who is that supportive of you and your life, it means a great deal. So I have to say, being honored by the group, was in fact like icing on the cake. It wasn’t like ‘wow look at me,’ but it was in some ways a relief, because now the cat’s out of the bag, everybody knows, you can put my name in the paper. So in some ways it was a relief, but at the same time, I still say ‘wow, thank you.’ It’s been a lot of fun. Ups and downs, but it’s been a lot of fun.

You’ve been able to see the whole change towards LGBT people. And what amazes me now is that of the 93 judges you have, many of them are out LGBT judges. Compared to 40 years ago, people are out and proud, they’re being elected, they’re being appointed, it’s just amazing. That couldn’t have happened for a young LGBT person when you and I were growing up. So you’re now in a position to encourage and help those young people. What do you want to say to them?

Be comfortable with yourself. We all went through the process where you make a decision of who you are. Again, it’s sort of getting to this point where you’re doing two things at the same time. You’re entering a new profession where you want to be comfortable with yourself and your skills, and you also want to be comfortable with the person you are. And to me, that’s a big hurdle. Be comfortable with yourself, recognize who you are, and be comfortable with it. And make your friends and know who they are. Because for me, throughout my life, if you weren’t going to be supportive of me for who I was and what I was, then you’re not going to be my friend. So I think what it says to a lot of young people is, you have a lot more available to you than we did when we were young, and you should take advantage of it. There’s going to be times in your career where you’re going to stumble and trip and worry about something. Pick up the phone, give a call, talk to one of us. And to be able to give that back to young people to me is something important.

I have to say, whenever I’d go up before the judges in Philadelphia for civil disobedience, they were always kind.

Good. My best assignment was when I got sent to Family Court; that was so important to me. I always remember, and I say this to this day, it’s not a good assignment unless you like people and are open to how they live their lives, and you aren’t judgemental. I guess that’s the lesson, having been judged, I know what it means not to be judgemental. The issues before me are the relationships between people, but I’m not judging that relationship. To me, when I was there, it was always ‘what’s for the benefit of the child?’ And I think I got to bring a different perspective to that type of court. And I enjoyed it, loved the people I met, tough cases, and when I left it was time to go. But like I said, I’ve enjoyed every moment of this, even on the bad days.

Anything you want to put on the record?

To me, I’ve had a good and blessed life. From where I came from to where I am. My secretary, she’s been with me since my law practice, she teases me and says with all the crises happening, “I don’t know how you come in in the morning.” Part of it is just enjoying what you do. I’ll tell you one last thing, it’s so funny, [Judge] Dan Anders always says “come on, you have to do this, you have to join this group,” and I guess for me, going through my life where I was never part of a group, always the odd person out. I came from South Philadelphia and I wanted to go to college. My father was Jewish and my mother was Italian. I grew up in an Italian neighborhood with the last name Fox. So from always being not part of a group to suddenly being a part of a group, that created conflict for me. Because I’m like ‘I don’t want to be part of the group, I’ve never been part of a group, I’m comfortable not being part of a group.’ But being part of that group does bring everyone else up with me. 

In a lot of ways we were raised to be loners. That’s how we were, that’s how we had to be. All of a sudden now to be in a crowd, like at the PGN historical marker unveiling, where everybody’s open and accepting, it’s now like: we have a lot more to do, let’s acknowledge what we’ve done, and let’s move forward.

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