June 01, 2022
From Bench Scientist to Court Bench
CMU graduate approaches justice with kindness and common sense
By Kristy Locklin
A pandemic pushed Xander Orenstein into politics.
Xander believes that they are the first openly nonbinary person elected to a judicial seat in the United States.
“I do see it as a responsibility and something I have to consider,” says Xander of their six-year term. “It’s part of my identity, but it doesn’t define who I am. It doesn’t mean I represent nonbinary people, although I know my actions will reflect on the nonbinary community whether I like it or not. I try to be as careful as possible in my decision making.”
In a nondescript courthouse in Pittsburgh’s Lawrenceville neighborhood, Xander oversees civil cases such as landlord-tenant disputes, permits, licensing and inspections. At least 12 hours a week, they address criminal preliminary arraignments, preliminary hearings, and summary traffic and non-traffic cases in Pittsburgh Municipal Court downtown.
It’s a full-time job; one they never thought they’d be doing.
“I do see it as a responsibility and something I have to consider. It’s part of my identity, but it doesn’t define who I am. It doesn’t mean I represent nonbinary people, although I know my actions will reflect on the nonbinary community whether I like it or not.”
Xander grew up in an Orthodox Jewish household in Rockville, Maryland, where health care was the family business. Their dad is a pediatric emergency room doctor, their mom is a traveling nurse, their sister is in biomedical engineering and their brother is an EMT.
Xander took up the mantle, attending Carnegie Mellon University to pursue a degree in biological sciences. They found inspiration in the chemistry lab of Professor Danith Ly, who takes a community-driven approach to science.
“He looks at some of the most challenging problems that are currently unsolved in medicine and works tirelessly to come up with solutions that have the alleviation of suffering at their core,” Xander says.
It wasn’t long after graduation that they started to realize academia and the health care industry weren't the right places for them as their values and goals did not mesh with the demands of a system where making money was the main driving factor in the research that was being done.
“It made it difficult for me to continue in that field as it was,” they say. “I saw very clearly, as an individual, I was only as valuable as the amount of labor I could provide for any lab. (To me), having an impact even on one person or a potential impact on the future is more important than profit.”
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, they found themselves out of a job by circumstance.
Xander answered a social media plea for volunteers to go to their local courthouse and help people file for the eviction moratorium. Housing was a big issue on people’s minds, especially in Lawrenceville, Polish Hill, Bloomfield and the Strip District, where longtime residents are concerned about gentrification and its effect on the community.
“It is in our best interest to be as understanding as possible. Nobody is there because they have bad intentions. If people show up for court, there’s always a chance for a deal to be worked out, and everything to be resolved.”
In volunteering, Xander found a new calling.
After learning the incumbent was up for reelection, Xander looked into his sentencing record and realized they had different ideals when it came to justice.
“Mine were centered on restoration and problem-solving,” Xander says. “That resonated with a lot of people in the district. There is a demand from people to have the justice system be more reflective and compassionate than it has been in the past.”
They threw their hat into the ring, ran on a platform of common sense and kindness and won by 40 votes.
The transition from science to law has been interesting for Xander, who took over Magisterial Court District 05-3-10 on January 4 after an intense, one-month training session in Harrisburg.
Their advice for anybody who’s scheduled for a hearing? Show up.
Court, in general, can be terrifying and the system is often unwieldy and inefficient, they admit, but the people doling out verdicts care.
“It is in our best interest to be as understanding as possible,” they say. “Nobody is there because they have bad intentions. If people show up for court, there’s always a chance for a deal to be worked out, and everything to be resolved.”
Xander is embracing their new role and, despite its uncertainty, is excited for what the future holds.
“Had you asked me two years ago, ‘Hey, what do you think you’d be doing after the pandemic?’ I’d have given you a completely different answer than to be a judge,” they say. “If everything continues as it has been, if I’m able to have the same impact, I’ll continue serving my community. I’m always looking for opportunities to make the lives of those around me better.”