Are There Really 'Plenty of Shapiros Out There'? A Comment on the Courage of Norma L. Shapiro
Edited Volume of Essays on Notable American Judges (Kevin Peppers, ed., University of Virginia Press, 2018, Forthcoming)
17 Pages Posted: 17 Apr 2017 Last revised: 20 Nov 2017
Date Written: April 13, 2017
Norma Levy Shapiro, a trailblazing United States District Court Judge whose tenure on the Philadelphia federal bench spanned nearly 40 years, died July 22, 2016. This memoriam, written by two former law clerks, reflects fondly on Judge Shapiro’s judicial courage to follow her conscience even when doing so required making deeply unpopular decisions. To illustrate, this memoriam examines three of Judge Shapiro’s most memorable cases from her notable prisoner litigation docket. First, in Harris v. Pernsley, Judge Shapiro’s principled but polarizing decisions in the Philadelphia prison overcrowding litigation elicited a now-familiar brand of snark from one (tremendous! but imperfectly informed) commentator, who warned readers: “Unfortunately, there are plenty of Shapiros out there, which is one major reason why our streets are full of dangerous convicts.” Despite frequent and equally hostile commentary from the Philadelphia press, Judge Shapiro’s handling of the case brought about the closure of a notoriously derelict prison and the construction of new criminal justice facilities in Philadelphia. Second, in Chadwick v. Janecka, Judge Shapiro ruled unconstitutional the indefinite detention of a petitioner who refused to repatriate hidden offshore assets in a divorce proceeding. After reversal on appeal in an opinion written by then-Judge (now Supreme Court Justice) Samuel Alito, the petitioner went on to serve a record-breaking term of incarceration for civil contempt (14 years). Third, in Evans v. Beard, Judge Shapiro held that principles of finality prevailed over the state’s interest in the belated correction of an erroneously lenient sentence 11 years after it had been imposed.
Judge Shapiro always followed her conscience along the difficult path to justice and exhibited rare courage to do what was right. If there are, indeed, “plenty of Shapiros out there,” the world would be more just. But alas, there aren’t, and there never were.
Keywords: Donald Trump, judicial courage, mass incarceration, prisoner litigation, prison overcrowding, civil contempt, sentencing error, due process
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