Had she been born half a century earlier, she might have written her eighth-grade essay on Susan B. Anthony, or Florence Nightingale, or perhaps Jane Addams. But, fortunately for the law, Norma Levy was born in 1928, and so it was that she chose as the subject of her essay--and role model--Florence Ellinwood Allen, a Justice of the Ohio Supreme Court who, in 1934, was named by President Franklin Roosevelt to a seat on the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit. Judge Allen was the first woman to serve as a judge on a federal court established under Article III of the Constitution. Aspiring to go Judge Allen one better, Norma Levy decided to be the first woman appointed to the Supreme Court. But that goal was to elude her--one of the few goals that has. Instead, pursuant to appointment by President Jimmy Carter in 1978, Norma Levy--by then, Norma Levy Shapiro--became the first woman to serve on the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania and, thereby, the first woman judge of any Article III court in the entire Third Circuit. (1) (When Norma Levy Shapiro became Judge Shapiro in 1978, there were only seven other women on the federal bench in the entire country.)
And so, for twenty-five years, Judge Shapiro (hereinafter, "Shapiro" (2)) has been an ornament of Article III. But it is not her firstness (3) that sets her apart. What stamps her as remarkable are the wisdom, strength, and sensitivity that have characterized her judicial performance day after demanding day. These are the qualities that those of us privileged to be her judicial colleagues here in Philadelphia have had the good fortune to be particularly familiar with. (4)
To acquire a comprehensive sense of the excellence of Shapiro's judging would call for parsing and close assessment of at least a representative sample of the hundreds of cases she has had in charge in her quarter-century on the bench. An intensive scholarly appraisal of that sort is beyond the scope of this celebratory tribute. But there is one case of Shapiro's which may properly be looked to as a proxy for the entirety of her caseload--for it drew on her (seemingly inexhaustible) energies for eighteen years, and it required her to perform tasks that, fortunately, few judges have occasion to undertake. The case was Harris v. City of Philadelphia. (5) Harris began in 1982 as a class action filed pro se by inmates of Holmesburg Prison complaining that flagrant overcrowding had created debilitating and degrading--effectively hyper-punitive--conditions transgressing the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments. Far from being eager to exercise jurisdiction, Shapiro abstained: in Shapiro's view, the Court of Common Pleas, in which similar litigation had been commenced some years before, was the more appropriate forum to address problems besetting Philadelphia's prison system. But the Court of Appeals in 1985 concluded that, not-withstanding the ongoing state court litigation, the federal claims warranted federal judicial scrutiny. (6) The case was back on Shapiro's docket.
In 1986, the plaintiff class and the City of Philadelphia entered into a court-approved consent decree that provided, inter alia, for (1) construction of a new detention center within four years, and (2) in the event that Philadelphia's prison population rose above an agreed maximum, (a) the discharge from custody of inmates whose sentences were to...