Looking back on his 40 years in Philadelphia courtrooms, 18 years spent on the bench in the Court of Common Pleas, Judge Jeffrey Minehart decided it was time for a change.
Looking back on his 40 years in Philadelphia courtrooms, 18 years spent on the bench in the Court of Common Pleas, Judge Jeffrey Minehart decided it was time for a change: “I’m 74 years old and I feel that it’s time for me to pass my gavel and turn in my robe.”
The long-term Chestnut Hill resident retired earlier this month.
Born the fifth of sixth children, Minehart grew up in Germantown. He became interested in the law during his first job after college: a probation officer for juveniles. Part of the job involved testifying in court, which is when he watched lawyers “put on a show,” and he thought he could do that, too. After all, he had been a cast member in many dramas at Germantown Friends School, where he went for 13 years, K-12. He even won a drama award in his senior year of high school.
Minehart went to Temple Law School at night while he was a probation officer. Upon graduation, he practiced law independently for one and a half years until he was hired by the Philadelphia District Attorney’s office. He spent a total of 10 years as an assistant district attorney and supervised the criminal attorneys in his last four years.
“It was always fun getting together on Friday afternoons with the other attorneys and reviewing each other’s play-by-plays,” Minehart remembers.
Minehart then opted for private practice for 12 years, where he became a defense attorney. In the meantime, he volunteered for the Democratic Party, taking on constituent’s cases.
In the state of Pennsylvania, judges are elected to the Court of Common Pleas for ten-year terms. If there is a need for additional judges between elections, practicing attorneys can be temporarily appointed to be judges. This is how Minehart started his career as a judge. In 2002 then Pennsylvania Governor Mark Schweiker appointed him to try criminal cases.
Jeffrey enjoyed being a judge. “After practicing criminal law for 22 years, being a criminal judge fit like a glove,” Minehart recalls.
He decided to run for a 10-year term in the next election, which was a year later. When candidates run for a judgeship, their position on the ballot is determined by a lottery. Jeff’s position was second-to-last on the list. Thanks to his activity with the Democratic party, he was unanimously endorsed by the Democratic ward leaders of Philadelphia and in 2003 was elected for a 10-year assignment on the Court of Common Pleas.
Like most judges, Minehart started his career judging cases that did not have juries. In his third year as a judge, Minehart served as a judge in a program that was called “Gun Court” because it adjudicated cases that involved the unauthorized ownership of guns. In that one year, he tried 1100 cases.
In his fourth year, Minehart asked to be put on homicide cases, where he presided for eight years, followed by more than six years in the criminal trial division, which handled non-homicide criminal trials.
“Criminal law is exciting! You see lots of fireworks,” explained Minehart. “As a judge, you’re somewhat of a spectator and you have to rule on objections and take charge of the courtroom. You get used to that.”
The cases could be gruesome and sad, and those that involved children were the hardest to take. In his bedroom, Minehart keeps a photo of a girl who died of neglect. It was a particularly tough case.
“Everyone had let the child down, from the parents to the government agency involved,” he said.
Minehart presided over the infamous Gosnell case in 2010. Kermit Gosnell was a doctor who had performed late-term abortions and was convicted of killing viable fetuses.
“The testimony was painful to watch. It wasn’t a case that I could forget,” recalls Minehart.
Years after the trial ended, a book and a movie were made about it. In the book, the authors claimed that Minehart drank with the defendant’s attorney throughout the case. Minehart sued for defamation in 2017 and was vindicated when the case settled in 2018. Meanwhile, Minehart ran and won a second 10-year term on the Court.
Minehart’s wife Ginny helped him leave his work at the office. He would go home and talk to her and then be able to push it out of his mind.
“We’re lucky because we have a big family,” explains Ginny. “We would go to the Shore and surround ourselves with family and we’d laugh.”
Ginny is a retired teacher from the Philadelphia public schools, where she helped shape reading and writing programs. Jeff and Ginny met when he was 18 and she was 15. They have two children and five grandchildren.
For 35 of the past 40 years Jeff and Ginny have lived in Chestnut Hill.
“We’ve been in four different houses in Chestnut Hill. And every neighborhood was friendly and welcoming,” Minehart said.
As a judge, Minehart is highly regarded.
“Jeff has the perfect personality to handle [difficult] cases,” said his colleague and fellow Chestnut Hill resident Judge Ken Powell of the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas. “He’s compatible with everyone not because he’s malleable but because he’s adjustable. He is a very patient human being. He doesn’t raise his voice, but you can tell from the look in his eyes that he means business.”
Judge Scott O’Keefe of The Common Pleas Court claims Minehart as a mentor.
“When you’re an attorney you argue and you get very passionate about things, and he taught me not to do that [as a judge],” he said.
Minehart will miss watching Philadelphia lawyers — judges and lawyers alike — progress in their careers. “It has been an honor to watch the development of the lawyers who have come before me over the years.”
After spending most of their adult lives in Chestnut Hill, Minehart and his wife plan to move to Montgomery County to be closer to their daughter and her family.