One of just eight women in her law school class, the Honorable Norma Shapiro L’51 was known for being a generous mentor and colleague to other women in the legal profession. “I have always viewed the role of successful women as helping other women become successful,” she said. As one Pennsylvania Superior Court judge recalled, “So many women who have joined the bench from this area were contacted by Norma. We all think of her as a friend we can call upon. She is the roots of a tree that is growing and blossoming.”
As a young lawyer, Judge Shapiro took a nine-year hiatus from Philadelphia’s Dechert Price & Rhoads to care for her three young children. She returned to the firm and became its first female partner in 1973. She later became the first female chair of the Philadelphia Bar Association’s Board of Governors.
Judge Shapiro was appointed to the Eastern District of Pennsylvania in 1978, becoming the first female judge in the Third Circuit. Until her death in 2016, she handled many important and controversial cases, including Harris v. Pernsley, a dispute regarding prison overcrowding that lasted for 18 years, resulted in a prison cap, and ended with a consent decree that called for the construction of new prison facilities. Even when faced with scathing public criticism by such notable figures as pre-presidential Donald Trump, she always ruled as she believed the law required.
When Judge Shapiro received the Philadelphia Bar Association’s first Sandra Day O’Connor Award in 2003, Justice O’Connor reflected that “as her career progressed, Judge Shapiro’s light continued to shine in dark corners where women never before had traveled.”
In 2004, the Law School commissioned photographs of notable women alumnae to better represent our community; Judge Shapiro’s portrait by R. Husik is one in this series.
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