Waite is a historic winner in Bucks County court race The Republican lawyer from Wrightstown will be the first African American judge in the county’s history.

Author: LARRY KING Inquirer Writer Staff
Philadelphia Inquirer

November 5, 2003

The long wait is over.

The short Waite prevailed.

Clyde W. Waite, a 5-foot, 7-inch Republican lawyer from Wrightstown, became a giant in Bucks County history yesterday, easily winning election to Common Pleas Court as the county’s first African American judge.

Waite, 59, also seemed destined to become the first black elected to a countywide office, as Democrat Joyce Hadley was trailing in her bid to join the county commissioners.

Waite led a slate of four Republican county judicial candidates who appeared headed for a sweep in late returns. Also leading comfortably were lawyers Albert Cepparulo of Solebury, Theodore Fritsch of Doylestown, and Judge Mitchell Goldberg of Lower Makefield, who sought a 10-year term after being appointed to the bench earlier this year.

“It feels numbing. It feels surreal,” a beaming Waite said last night as he accepted congratulations at GOP headquarters in Doylestown. “It feels like Cinderella having a chance to stay after midnight.”

The face of justice in Bucks County had been monochromic for more than two centuries – since 1791, when James Biddle became the county’s first judge under the new Constitution. Fifty jurists later, Waite finally has cleared the hurdle.

“The fact that this is a first is significant, yes, but it has to be kept in context,” said Kenneth Murphy, immediate past president of the Barristers’ Association of Philadelphia, which works to advance black lawyers. “I am somewhat remorseful that it has taken this long.”

Judiciaries in Chester, Delaware and Montgomery Counties all broke their color barriers more than 15 years ago. The first female judge joined the Bucks brethren in 1976, yet decades passed without a black judge.

That holdup may speak as much about the county’s politics and legal demographics as it does about racial attitudes.

Waite said he was one of just three black lawyers practicing in the county, a thin supply of candidates. Also, the former Democrat had to alter his political stripes before standing any chance of changing the complexion of the Bucks County bench.

No Democrat has won a county judicial election in Bucks since 1989. In parts of central and northern Bucks, registered Democrats can seem as scarce as, well, black judges.

After an unsuccessful run for judge in 1995, Waite made the switch to the GOP, which he says received him warmly.

For Waite, the son of a widowed domestic worker, the victory caps a lifelong climb that began in poverty in McKeesport, Pa., where he shared a house with eight other children. After scraping through Howard University – which had rejected him twice – he went on to a degree from Yale Law School.

A courtly, deep-voiced man, he called his election “a bigger accomplishment than one individual getting public office. It says that opportunities are available, that if you continue to work and try and never give up, all things are possible.”

In 32 years of practicing in Bucks, Waite has handled all varieties of criminal and civil cases, and runs a successful private practice in Newtown.

“He is a man of impeccable integrity. His courtroom skills are second to none, and I have no doubt they will carry over to the bench,” said James A. Downey, a lawyer and former neighbor who has known Waite since they were public defenders 30 years ago. “Once in a while the right person gets to the right place.”

He and Waite still laugh about the day long ago when Waite stood in a gray suit and tie in the back of a courtroom, listening in on a robbery trial. When a witness was asked to identify the robber, who was black, she pointed straight at Waite.

“It was taken in good humor,” Waite said.

Still, he said, Bucks County may suffer an “image problem” among black lawyers who choose not to practice there. Though his presence on the bench might diminish that image, he said no one should anticipate special treatment.

“I’m going to be objective and fair. That means no one gets any privileges because of affiliation, color, or any other reason,” he said. “It also means that those people get no ill treatment, that they get a fair opportunity. That’s all anyone should expect in any judicial setting.”

Waite will begin his duties in January. It will be his second major change in four months; he was married Sept. 6 at the home of a friend in Solebury.

“I kid him and say, ‘Listen, I’ve known you around town all these years. I didn’t avoid you because you’re black,'” said Gloria Waite, who is white. “‘I avoided you because you’re a lawyer.'”

That view, obviously, has changed. Waite, she said, shares his prosperity with the poor in “simply amazing” ways – from offering his home as collateral for low-income housing improvements to buying a van for a handicapped child.

Perhaps they are investments toward knocking down barriers.

“I never give up on anything,” Waite said.

“Including becoming a 6-footer,” he added with a laugh. “I’m still working on that.”