Alumnus Mark Hornak: From Student Council to United States District Judge

by John Conroy

When Mark Hornak was in junior high, he was part of student council. When he went to high school, he was class president. And when he was in college, he ran for the school board. So while he suspected that law and government would be part of his life when he went to the University of Pittsburgh, it wasn't until he took Emeritus Faculty Eugene Lincoln’s School Law class that “law really caught fire with me, as I could see that same passion and commitment in Professor Lincoln,” says Hornak. That class would ultimately take him on a journey from law school to United States District Judge.

What was it in particular that caught Hornak’s interest with Lincoln’s class? “He took us over to the law school; we had to learn how to do legal research as undergraduates, but he showed us where to find things and how to do things. It was very similar to how a law school course was taught.”

After graduating in 1978 from the School of Education, he applied to Pitt’s law school, and was accepted. He received his law degree, graduating summa cum laude, in 1981, and was named a University Scholar by the Chancellor of the University.

In 1982, Judge Hornak began the practice of law at the Pittsburgh office of Buchanan Ingersoll & Rooney PC, where he served on the firm’s Executive Committee and chaired its Conflicts Committee. His practice focused on labor and workplace law, and the firm represented a few school districts.

During this time, Hornak also joined the Steel Valley school board in 1983, and then was elected in 1985 and 1989 as a school director. Hornak knew the surrounding communities of Munhall, Homestead, and West Homestead very well. It was where he had grown up.

“It was a time of enormous transformation in Western Pennsylvania. Homestead had what was the largest integrated steel mill in the world,” he says. However, within two-and-a-half years, the mill was essentially shut down, along with roughly 16,000 jobs. “That was coincident with the time I was on the board, so that was the most significant challenge that we faced at the time: how to provide the best education possible in that context and that environment.”

How does he feel now about that time period? “It was a privilege, because the community came together and supported public education, recognizing that what had been a direct path to a career or trade working in industry wasn’t going to be there for them,” Hornak says. “We worked very closely with the school administration, and the superintendent, Jerry Longo [now a clinical associate professor at Pitt], was instrumental in helping the district form a number of very significant private and public partnerships to support the education program.”

While being part of the board, Hornak also continued rising through the ranks at Buchanan Ingersoll & Rooney PC, eventually becoming a partner and a member of the executive committee, while still practicing as a lawyer.

And it was in October 2011 when Hornak was appointed as a United States District Judge by President Barack Obama.  He entered on duty one month later on November 21, 2011. Back in 1981, after graduating from law school, he had worked as a law clerk for a federal appeals judge in a court that covered the Southeastern U.S. Hornak thought back then, “Well if I grew up to be a good enough lawyer, this is something I probably want to be considered for.” The seed was planted, though it took 30 years to grow.

When asked to describe the differences between the two roles of lawyer and judge, Hornak paraphrases Chief Justice Roberts. “I’m principally the umpire. It is my responsibility to make opportunities for both parties to present their party’s case, and some matters I decide, and then in contested matters, the factual decisions are made by a jury.”

One of the most interesting and challenging elements of Hornak’s role is how consequential his decision making is. In fact, in the United States’ 238 years of existence, only 2,800 people or so have had his role. “Even after 200 some years, not every legal question has been answered, so I’m often the first person that has to decide what the law is that applies to a given case. I’d say the intellectual challenge of the job and the consequential nature of the job is at the same time very sobering, and what makes the job rewarding.”

Despite his busy schedule, Hornak has remained in touch with the School of Education. He has spoken at some of Jerry Longo’s superintendent development programs about his time on the Steel Valley school board. His wife graduated from the School of Nursing, and Sam, one of his five children, is a Pitt Law alumnus.

Looking back on his career, Hornak sees himself as lucky. “I’ve been very lucky to represent both private sector and public sector clients who have important roles in society, who carry out important things and who needed legal advice. I’ve been privileged to hold public office both by election and by appointment,” he says. “To an extent, a federal judge has clients: the people of the United States and the rule of law. To do it in the context of having a terrific family and to be in a position to help them get the education they want to have and start the careers they want to have, it’s pretty tough to beat.”

JOHN CONROY is manager of marketing communications for the Pitt School of Education.