The Honorable Dolores K. Sloviter L’56, the first woman judge on the Third Circuit Court of Appeals, passed away on October 12, 2022. After facing enormous challenges finding a job as a lawyer in 1950s Philadelphia, her appointment to the Court exemplified her trailblazing achievements.
“Judge Sloviter fought for gender equality, overcoming bias in her own career and tackling a long history of both racial and gender discrimination and inequities in the profession,” said Ted Ruger, Dean of the University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School and Bernard G. Segal Professor of Law. “An antitrust lawyer of the highest order, she also expanded the Third Circuit’s focus on antitrust jurisprudence.”
Continually breaking barriers and leading the way for women to ascend to positions of prominence in the legal profession, Judge Sloviter was also the first female partner at a major Philadelphia law firm and the Circuit’s first female Chief Judge.
Judge Sloviter served on the Third Circuit for nearly 40 years, retiring in 2016. Her service included seven years as Chief Judge. She will be remembered as a champion of the rights of women, the incarcerated, and the elderly.
At her induction ceremony, former classmate and then-Dean of Temple Law School, Peter Liacouras L’56, described Judge Sloviter as “thoroughly and meticulously prepared, prudently ambitious, selective in her choice of words, brilliant in her incisiveness, and respectful of the interests of the poor and minorities. She seemed destined for a constructive leadership role in this country.”
A Trailblazing Career
Judge Sloviter, born in Philadelphia to immigrant parents, earned an undergraduate degree in economics from Temple University, where she was city editor of the school newspaper.
At Penn’s Law School, Judge Sloviter was an editor of theUniversity of Pennsylvania Law Review and graduated magna cum laude. In a 1999 interview for the Law School’s Oral History Project, Judge Sloviter remembered being highly enthusiastic about what she was learning. Judge Sloviter was one of only 8 women in her 132-member class – the largest class of women up to that point. Today, more than half the class is composed of women.
In 1956, women with law degrees were usually relegated to secretarial or librarian positions at law firms. Dilworth, Paxson, Kalish, Kohn & Levy was the only firm to offer Judge Sloviter a job as an attorney. Judge Sloviter would become the firm’s first woman partner in 1964.
In an interview for the Penn Law Journal in 2005, Judge Sloviter said “I am convinced that I wasn’t hired because I was a woman; it was in spite of the fact that I was a woman.”
While at Dilworth, Judge Sloviter assisted legendary antitrust lawyer Harold E. Kohn C’34, L’37 in an historic case involving price fixing claims against General Electric, Westinghouse and a dozen more manufacturers of electrical equipment. The case drew national attention and led to a series of Senate hearings. In this case, the firm represented more than 1,000 clients, leading to the crucial development of federal rules regarding complex litigation management.
Liacouras recruited Judge Sloviter to teach antitrust law and civil procedure at Temple, where she served on the faculty from 1972 to 1979.
Learning that her women students were having some of the same problems getting a job that she had experienced 20 years earlier galvanized her. As a law professor at Temple, she advocated for equal treatment of women, helping to establish a protocol at Temple’s law school that denied on campus recruitment to law firms that did not treat male and female applicants equally.
President Carter appointed Judge Sloviter to the Third Circuit Court of Appeals in 1979, and she became part of an emerging class of women judges.
On the bench, Judge Sloviter contributed to several legal decisions that impacted vital doctrinal areas of law. During her judicial tenure, Judge Sloviter authored more than 800 precedential opinions, including the landmark ACLU v. Reno, which established important legal parameters concerning First Amendment protections and the internet.
Several Penn Carey Law alumni clerked for Judge Sloviter, including Chris Haaf L’09, from 2012 to 2013.
“She was pretty small (in stature) but she just had this huge presence,” said Haaf, founder of Chris Haaf Law PLLC in North Carolina. “You could tell how much respect she garnered from the other judges.”
Sandy Mayson, Professor of Law at Penn Carey Law, clerked for the judge during the same period as Haaf. Mayson considered it a privilege to clerk for such a “titan in the law.”
“She will be remembered as a trailblazing judge who issued too many landmark opinions to count, whose intellect was universally respected and admired, and who launched many a young lawyer on their own rewarding path in the law, especially young women.”
A Dedication to Equity
Former Chief Judge of the Third Circuit, Theodore McKee, said Judge Sloviter was “attuned to gender discrimination that was informed by her own experiences, but also was sensitive to racial discrimination. “She was alert to manifestations of racism within the criminal justice system,” added Judge McKee, who remains a member of the Court.
During her first year on the bench, Judge Sloviter made a seismic statement when she declined to attend an annual event at the Union League in Philadelphia honoring Third Circuit judges because the Union League did not accept women as members. The Union League eventually reversed its position.
Throughout her term, Judge Sloviter remained ardently dedicated to ensuring that the most vulnerable community members were afforded equitable access to justice. She formed a Task Force on Equal Treatment in the Courts to examine racial and gender bias. She also turned her attention to the preparation of a casebook titled Law and the Elderly and became Vice Chair of the Philadelphia Bar Association’s Senior Citizens Judicare Project, which aimed to make professional legal services available to needy elderly persons.
Despite her activism, Judge Sloviter never saw herself as a role model.
In a 1991 speech, she said: “For a long time, I felt like a token appointment as the first woman on the then 90-year history of the Third Circuit until I read that my counterpart, Judge Patricia Wald of the D.C. Circuit, said that we were not tokens, but beacons.”
Judge Sloviter is survived by her daughter Vikki Sloviter-Wheeler, son-in-law Justin Wheeler, and four grandchildren.
Learn more about Judge Sloviter’s impactful work in Biddle Law Library’s Judge Dolores Sloviter Papers.