2008 Professional Achievement Award
Sylvia H. Rambo ’58
As the first female judge on the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania, Sylvia Rambo ’58 knows that trailblazers never have it easy. Beyond being the only woman in her law school class, she had to balance her legal studies with raising a younger sister and face subtle prejudices even after she rose to the bench in the mid-1970s.
“There were some lawyers that were constantly testing me, and I had to be careful how I handled it,” she recalls. “You don’t want them to think you’re a pushover, but, on the other hand, you don’t want to show anger or frustration. They would sometimes do little things like first say, ‘yes sir,’ and then say, ‘oh, I’m sorry, yes ma’am.’ I finally called one person up to the bench and said, ‘When there’s a male judge, how do you address him?’ He said, ‘Well, yes, your honor, no, your honor,’ and I said, ‘That works perfectly fine for me.’ ”
That relaxed yet firm authority helped Rambo also become the first female chief justice of the Middle District from 1992 to 1999. During that time, she presided over such high-profile cases as the class-action lawsuit against Three Mile Island and earned the admiration of attorneys and other judges for her control of the courtroom.
Yet before becoming a judge, Rambo never wanted to wield the gavel. She graduated from Dickinson College with honors in political science in 1958, earned her JD from Dickinson School of Law four years later and ran a successful private practice for 13 years before being appointed Cumberland County public defender in 1973. After being appointed judge of the Cumberland County Court of Common Pleas in 1976 to fill a two-year vacancy, however, Rambo found it difficult to return to the other side of the bench.
“I was always happy in practice, but that experience on the bench just completely turned me around,” she explains. “I suddenly saw both sides of the issues.”
Since being appointed to the Middle District bench by President Carter in 1979, seeing both sides has worked well for Rambo. Now a senior justice in the court, she has served on Dickinson’s board of advisors, currently serves on Dickinson School of Law’s board of governors and received honorary doctor of laws degrees from Dickinson College and four other institutions. Though she has been pleased to see women win solid footing in the courtroom during her career, Rambo notes that the field still needs more trailblazers.
“It’s quite common now to see a lot of women on the federal bench, but it took a while,” she says. “You see more women in court today, but it’s not often that you see women in partnerships in law firms. So there’s been progress, but it’s been slow, and we’re still fighting.”
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