By Pete Kennedy
Paul Panepinto was standing in line for a ride at Disney World when he had an idea about how to improve Philadelphia’s court system.
“I’ve been in line for 40 minutes,” he said, “but I don’t mind waiting because the entertainment is pretty good.”
It was the spring of 1996, and just days earlier, Panepinto had been appointed by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court to serve as the administrative judge for Philadelphia Family Court, overseeing 900 employees, 25 judges and a $36 million budget.
For one of his first acts in the powerful new position, he installed 76-inch televisions in the courthouse waiting areas, where children and adults — sometimes parents feuding over custody — often had to wait for hours.
“I created movies about practical things and fun things for kids to watch, and for parents to learn how to behave in the courtroom,” Panepinto said.
Panepinto, now 69 and still residing in Philadelphia, is now in private practice, focusing on real estate matters, wills and estate work. He looks back on his ascension to top judge in Philadelphia Family Court as a singular achievement in his career.
“I started as a probation officer, an honorable position but the lowest professional job in the court, and I ended up working my way up to be the head of the whole court,” he said.
With his ground-up knowledge of family court, he would call upon his former co-workers for ideas on to improve things: “Remember all this stuff we used to talk about, do you think it would work?”
He adopted a motto: TEAM — Together Everyone Accomplishes More.
Panepinto was raised in a small Italian-American community, St. Donato’s Parish in the Overbrook section of Philadelphia. After graduating from St. Thomas More High School, he attended Villanova University on a full academic scholarship, earning a bachelor’s degree in political science.
He worked at his family’s restaurant, Tecco’s Tavern, located at 61st and Vine streets. It was a favorite among judges and other dignitaries, including then-Police Commissioner Frank Rizzo.
“Being Italian, my grandmother did the cooking,” he said. “If you came in, and came back four years later, you’d get the same spaghetti dish with her gravy.”
“Pauly,” as he was known to patrons, mostly worked in the back, washing dishes, but he was friendly with the power brokers in the dining room and began nursing his own political ambitions.
He landed a job as a probation officer in the family court system, and started going to law school at night. He received his Juris Doctorate from Widener in 1976 and later returned to Villanova to receive a master’s in political science in 1979.
Family Court Judge Frank J. Montemuro Jr., his former boss who would go on to become a state Supreme Court justice, mentored Panepinto and eventually helped him receive an appointment to a Family Court judgeship in 1990. In 1991, he ran and won his first election, to keep the seat.
When he was named administrative judge five years later, he seized the opportunity to make the court more user-friendly.
He added a nursery in the courthouse, so infants wouldn’t disrupt courtrooms. He created job-placement assistance programs for fathers who owed child support, and he extended the hours and payment methods for people to make court-ordered payments.
“Do you know how much more money we collected by making it convenient?” he said.
Perhaps his most wide-reaching innovation, which was copied in cities across the country, was START — Stop Truancy And Recommend Treatment. Panepinto worked with Philadelphia School District officials to put satellite truancy courts in a handful of schools.
“We’d ask, ‘Why aren’t you going to school?’” Panepinto said. “If it was because he needed glasses, we’d immediately have the DHS city worker make him an eye doctor appointment. If he couldn’t wake up in the morning, we’d hand him an alarm clock. I had a thousand of them, donated!”
Panepinto has run for statewide posts on three occasions, including a 2015 run for the Pennsylvania Supreme Court in which the longtime Republican dropped his party label and ran as an independent candidate, calling for “justice above politics.”
After 28 years in the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas, including stints in Family Court and the Trial Division, he retired in March 2017. He has received numerous accolades and honors, including Outstanding Alumnus of the Year Award from Widener Law in 1994, recognition by Rhode Island Gov. Donald Carcieri, who duplicated Philadelphia’s anti-truancy program, Cavaliere recognition by the Consul General of Italy for contributions to the Republic of Italy. He sits on the board of City Trusts, which oversees Girard College, Wills Eye Health System and other city assets.
Panepinto first met his wife, Nancy, at Villanova. They’ve been married for 41 years and have two grown children, Lynn and Paul. He enjoys traveling and still dabbles in politics. He also chairs the scholarship committee of the St. Thomas More alumni association, which has given out $1.5 million in scholarship funds, including $120,000 just this year.