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U.S. News
Newsmaker: Janet Thorpe / Judge who lifted veil of Fla. driver

Mt. Lebanon native is a problem solver

Monday, June 09, 2003

By Marylynne Pitz, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

When color televisions became popular, Janet Thorpe's parents asked their six children to choose between buying one or a set of encyclopedias.

Judge Janet Thorpe

Thorpe, now a Ninth Judicial Circuit Court judge in Orlando, Fla., opted for the encyclopedias but was outvoted by her five siblings.

At the time, Thorpe's younger sister, Elaine, had some advice: "Like, go to the library!"

That's likely where Thorpe, 49, spent time after hearing testimony last month in the case of Sultaana Freeman, a Muslim woman whose Florida driver's license was revoked because she refused to remove her veil to be photographed.

Thorpe, a native of Mt. Lebanon, ruled Friday that Freeman must be photographed without her veil in order to obtain a driver's license. The judge, who would not discuss the case in a recent phone interview, decided the state's public safety interest outweighed Freeman's right to practice her religion.

In February 2001, Freeman obtained a Florida driver's license that contained a photograph of her face covered in a veil, but she received a letter from the state nine months later warning that it would revoke her license unless she returned to be photographed with her face uncovered. Freeman refused and sued for the right to get a driver's license with a photograph showing her face covered. Her lawyers argued that state officials did not care that she wore a veil in the photograph until after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, an accusation that lawyers for the state denied.

 
 

NAME: Janet C. Thorpe

AGE: 49

HOMETOWN: Mt. Lebanon; now lives in Orlando, Fla.

EDUCATION: Union College (1975), Emory University Law School (1978)

CAREER: Regional attorney with a U.S. Treasury office called Comptroller of the Currency in Atlanta, Ga., 1978-1980; counsel to Sun Trust Bank, 1980 to Jan. 2000; Ninth Circuit County Court Judge, Jan. 1, 2000 to present.

FAMILY: Married with four daughters.

   
 

During a non-jury trial, Freeman testified that she is opposed to being photographed or seen without her veil.

Thorpe said in her ruling that the state had a compelling interest in public safety, that Freeman wasn't being "singled out" because she is Muslim, and that Florida officials had testified that they offered to have her photographed by a woman.

Randall Marshall, executive director of the ACLU in Florida, praised Thorpe's demeanor on the bench.

"She certainly allowed both sides to put on their case," Marshall said.

Thorpe grew up in a stone house on Carlton Drive in Mt. Lebanon with one brother and four sisters. Her father, Burt Thorpe, traveled frequently because he owned a company that sold cranes used in construction. He also piloted small planes.

The family disciplinarian was Phyllis Thorpe, an Irish matriarch who took charge, finished crosswords, outwitted fellow bridge players and read constantly.

"She raised really independent, powerful girls who weren't afraid to enter into the mainstream and compete and I think that's kind of neat," said Frank Nass, a Mt. Lebanon businessman who deals in metals and raw minerals.

Nass' wife, Sarah, recalled that the Thorpe family attended Bower Hill Community Church.

"They were very progressive. They had female ministers before everybody else," Sarah Nass said.

"You knew early on that Janet was going to make a difference. Her sisters were more subtle. She's much more forceful," Sarah Nass added.

Frank Nass thinks his friend has the right qualities to be a judge.

"She's tough. She's in control. She's brilliant and she's very, very fair," he said.

Since Thorpe took the Florida trial bench in January of 2000, she has tried to listen more and talk less.

"You've got to work hard to listen affirmatively. The tendency is always to speak and that's not the role of the judge. You've got to sit on your hands and let people have enough rope to hang themselves," Thorpe said.

Before Florida Gov. Jeb Bush appointed her to the bench, Thorpe got plenty of experience with resolving conflict as the third of six children.

"I'm basically a problem solver," she said, adding that as a middle child, "you're getting it from both sides."

Take the way Thorpe and three of her high school classmates made their senior prom festive without ruining their finances.

Thorpe and her friend, Christine Berliner, joined Larry Schardt and Mark Thorpe for dinner at McDonald's on Mt. Lebanon Boulevard. Thorpe's sister, Elaine, and Sarah Nass waited on the group.

"We had friends that dressed up as waiters and brought us our french fries a la carte on sterling silver trays," Thorpe said, adding that the two women and their dates sipped Cokes and Sprites from champagne glasses.

"We decided that it shouldn't be expensive to go to a prom. We just had a great time," said Thorpe, who returned here last June for her 30th high school reunion.

While they were dining, Berliner recalled, "Two carloads of students peered through the windows to make sure we were doing this. We used my dad's car but, since my Cinderella license expired at midnight, Janet had to drive us all home."

Larry Schardt, of Lewistown, Mifflin County, has forsaken Big Macs for vegetarianism but still communicates with Thorpe via e-mail.

"Janet was always a leader," Schardt said. "She knew what she was doing in life while the rest of us were still being hippies. She knew where she was going. .... She studied. She had goals and vision."

Thorpe attended Markham Elementary from kindergarten through second grade, then transferred to Jefferson Elementary. After finishing Jefferson Junior High, she attended Mt. Lebanon High School and graduated in 1972.

Thorpe studied liberal arts at Boston University and finished undergraduate work in 1975 at Union College in Schenectady, N.Y., where she earned a degree in American history and political science. She received her law degree from Emory University in Atlanta, Ga., in 1978.

After law school, Thorpe stayed in Atlanta and worked as a regional attorney in the federal Comptroller of the Currency office from 1978 to 1980.

In the 1980s, Thorpe worked as in-house counsel for the Trust Company of Georgia, which merged with Sun Bank in 1986 and became Sun Trust Bank.

Thorpe stayed with the bank through Jan. 1, 2000.

"I stayed for Y2K. I had to make sure everything worked," she recalled.

Thorpe's judicial career started in juvenile court, where she heard cases involving abused, neglected and abandoned children.

"The only highlight is you get to do the adoptions," she said.

In January of this year, Thorpe was transferred to the court's civil division and the dispute involving Freeman's driver's license wound up on her docket of 2,000 cases.

Marie Rosa, a spokeswoman for the Orange County Bar Association, said the Orlando Sentinel newspaper ranked Thorpe sixth out of 16 judges in a poll conducted last year.

Outside the courtroom, Thorpe makes time for gardening and photography. She is a mother of four children, whose ages range from 8 to 23.

Thorpe and her husband, Jim, are restoring an 80-year-old colonial home that sits atop a hill near the original fort that established Orlando, Fla.

While renovations continue, Thorpe and her family are living in an apartment, "with two cats, a 112-pound dog and a gold fish named Fred. We're all shoehorned in," the judge said.

But when Frank Nass arrives in Florida, Thorpe and her two sisters, Elaine and Laurel, join him for their fiercely competitive, never-ending Scrabble tournament.

"Unfortunately, he's been beating us recently," Thorpe said.

In the next Scrabble round, the judge hopes she will get the right letters to spell a new word in her vocabulary -- niqab -- the name for the full-face veil worn by Muslim women that allows only their eyes to show.

Nass laughs when told that "Judge Janet," his affectionate nickname for her, has a new word.

"That's what's tough. She's always working!"


Marylynne Pitz can be reached at mpitz@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1648.

The Los Angeles Times contributed to this report.

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