The Honorable Dolores Sloviter L’56 famously recalls being asked at her law school admission interview, “Why should we let you into law school? You’ll take a place, and you’ll get married and you’ll have children, and you’ll never contribute anything to the profession.” Those words, Judge Sloviter said, “undoubtedly contributed to my obsession to devote myself without deviation to the law in the hope that other women would never hear those biting words.”
Judge Sloviter certainly proved her admissions interviewer wrong. Despite excelling in law school, she received only one job offer after graduation, from fellow alum Harold Kohn L’37. He hired her at the Philadelphia firm Dilworth, Paxson, Kalish, Kohn & Levy, where Judge Sloviter went on to become the first female partner.
After 16 years of private practice, Judge Sloviter joined the Temple Law faculty, where she taught antitrust law, civil procedure, and elder law. Of her time teaching, Judge Sloviter said “as a young lawyer, I thought that if I succeeded and that became known (I was being carefully observed), then other firms would realize that women lawyers were as competent as men and that would be reflected in the hiring process. I was amazed to learn from my female students at Temple Law School that they were being asked the same sexist questions to which I had been subjected; they were finding that there was discrimination against them because they were women, and that there was not a general acceptance of young women lawyers.” Judge Sloviter responded by persuading Temple Law to bar firms that did not treat female and male applicants equally from participating in on-campus recruitment.
Judge Sloviter was appointed to the Third Circuit in 1979. She was the first woman to serve on that court, and in 1991 she became the first woman to serve as Chief Judge. She continued her fight for gender equality from the bench. During her first year as a judge, she declined to attend an annual event honoring Third Circuit judges because it was being held at the Union League, which did not then accept women members. In a letter she made public, Judge Sloviter wrote, “I cannot knowingly attend any event at a facility where women are relegated to an inferior position.” The private club began accepting women a few years later.
In the landmark 1996 case Reno v. ACLU, Sloviter was a member of a panel that blocked enforcement of the Communications Decency Act, ruling that it unconstitutionally abridged the free speech provision of the First Amendment. The “Findings of Fact” document Judge Sloviter helped write for the case was posted online and frequently cited as a lucid introduction to then-novel problems and opportunities presented by the internet. The U.S. Supreme Court upheld the ruling in 1997.
In 2004, the University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School commissioned photographs of notable women alumnae to better represent our community. Judge Sloviter’s portrait by R. Husik is one in this series.
Biddle Law Library recently made the Judge Dolores Sloviter Papers (1965-2012) collection available to the public.