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Apr. 21—Lower Valley Magisterial District Justice candidate Barry Wingard is running his campaign by doing what he called "something really outrageous."
"I'm going to talk about the issues in our community that matter," said Wingard, an Indiana Township resident who is among five candidates seeking the six-year post that serves the Fox Chapel Area School District municipalities.
"I'm not going to recite irrelevant details of my resume or highlight endorsements from special interest groups."
Wingard, an attorney assigned to Veterans and Mental Health courts at the Allegheny County Public Defender's Office, said he won't seek endorsements from politicians, political parties or special interests.
"The only endorsement that I am seeking is from the people of our community," he said. "We are all Americans, and we can accomplish so much together if we are united and not divided."
The Sharpsburg District Justice office most recently was held by Elissa Lang, who retired last year. Senior judges have been filling the interim role on a rotating basis.
The office along Main Street hears cases that include small claims, traffic violations and some felonies.
Judges are elected for six-year terms.
Wingard, a practicing attorney for 25 years, has specialized in criminal litigation in the Public Defender's Office for the past two decades. He has represented clients in every magisterial district court in Allegheny County, Wingard said.
"I have extensive experience in pretrial, adult trial, juvenile court, domestic violence court, ARD, Phoenix court, mental health and Veterans court," he said.
"I've spent years representing indigent clients who could not otherwise afford an attorney. This experience has helped me to identify the most pressing issues in our community at the magisterial district level and to develop a plan to address them."
As one of the primary responsibilities of the magistrate is to hear criminal cases, Wingard said his experience in criminal law makes him uniquely qualified to evaluate the evidence and make critical decisions in cases brought before the local court.
"When magistrate judges lack real experience, we as a community are less safe and there is a greater likelihood of individuals being wrongly prosecuted," he said. "I have the qualifications and knowledge to evaluate each case individually. I will not apply a one-size-fits-all approach."
Wingard said his experience is important when assessing the issue of bail.
"I will not needlessly assign cash bond, because I know the consequences that individuals face with pretrial detention," he said. "It is the responsibility of the Magisterial District Justice to make individualized assessments of each person before them, and I take that responsibility seriously. I understand that there are many ways to secure someone's appearance for court, without having to incarcerate them pretrial."
Wingard, a graduate of Pittsburgh Public Schools, enlisted in the Army Infantry just after he turned 17 with the goal of a college education and successful career.
"For the next four years I traveled the world, assigned to protect American interests," he said. "I was ordered to the 101st Airborne Division, and then to the First Armored Division in West Germany during the height of the Cold War."
He used the G.I. Bill to attend Penn State, where he earned a bachelor's degree and was commissioned as a 2nd Lieutenant in the Army. Wingard attended law school and became a Judge Advocate General. He later transferred to the U.S. Air Force.
During his military service, he was deployed to Bosnia and served as a war crimes investigator for the Bosnian genocide; Kosovo as a part of Operation Allied Force; Baghdad, where he prosecuted war crimes against American forces in the Central Criminal Court of Iraq; and Guantanamo Bay, where he was ordered to defend people against government claims that ultimately led to the release of all of his clients due to poor investigations and lack of evidence.
Wingard achieved the rank of colonel and retired after 30 years of service.
"As the only candidate running with 25 years of full-time experience in criminal law, I am very excited to bring my ideas to the office of our local magistrate," he said. "I strongly believe that experience matters and that it is a mistake to assume that anyone can fill this vital position.
"The nuances of the criminal justice system, and the issues facing the people that I meet every day, are not just something that you can learn from a book."
If elected, Wingard said he will work to keep the streets and neighborhoods safe, address the mental health crisis, assist veterans, save taxpayer dollars and bring unity to the Lower Valley.
"I will work full-time and will offer weekend and evening hours because regular office hours are not always convenient for those of us who work a regular work week," he said.
Wingard said he plans to address the mental health crisis rocking every part of the region.
"In the wake of the covid-19 pandemic, rates of anxiety, depression, addiction and suicide have skyrocketed," he said. "The social and emotional impact has been substantial. I specialize in and currently represent every client in Mental Health Court in Allegheny County. I understand the interventions that are available, to whom they are available, and their probability of success. Often, the time it takes to identify a mental health issue in the court system is a problem that can have devastating consequences if left undiscovered. I will have county mental health agencies in my courtroom to identify and facilitate treatment promptly. For more serious cases, I will flag those for alternative disposition in Mental Health Court."
As a veteran, Wingard said he understands the unique challenges and mental health issues that occur from military service. He believes he is best qualified to assist veterans that appear before the magistrate and said he will ensure their needs are met and if possible diverted away from the criminal courts.
Also on his to-do list is addressing wasted taxpayer dollars.
"As cases advance through the courts, substantial costs start to accrue," he said. "When judges have limited and narrow experience, their decisions result in wasted time and money at the cost of taxpayer and court resources.
"Many minor offenses that could and should be resolved at the local level are often sent to the higher court. My extensive experience as a defense attorney and prosecutor gives me the unique ability to identify cases that are appropriate to proceed to the Common Pleas Court, and those that are able to be handled locally. Ultimately, this results in a more efficient and more equitable judicial system at the local level."
Tawnya Panizzi is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Tawnya at 724-226-7726, email@example.com or via Twitter .