Judge Stewart Dalzell, a federal judge for the United States District Court in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, began his legal career as a summer associate at Drinker Biddle. After joining the firm as a full time associate in 1970, Judge Dalzell continued to practice here until he was appointed to the Eastern District in 1991 by President George H.W. Bush. We recently reconnected with Judge Dalzell and learned more about his professional journey.
Q: Can you tell us about your beginnings at Drinker Biddle & Reath?
A: I worked as a summer associate between my second and third years at Penn Law School and joined the Litigation Group full time as an associate in 1970. I was made partner in 1976 after practicing six years at the firm. Drinker Biddle was actually the only firm I ever interviewed with. At the end of my summer associate summer, I received an offer for a full-time position. At that time I also got an offer from the Wharton School in their Law Department. They invited me to be a lecturer while one of the professors was on sabbatical. The Drinker people were very nice about that because I always wanted to try teaching. I taught undergraduates in Legal Process and MBA students in the basics of commercial (UCC ) and contract law. My time at Drinker as an associate was fascinating. I got to work a lot for a sensational partner, Ray Denworth, and I was exposed to some of the best lawyers in action that you could ever want to see as a young lawyer.
Q: You earned a B.S. in Economics from the University of Pennsylvania, Wharton School and deferred the start of your legal career for one year to work as a financial analyst at NBC in New York. Did you ever consider continuing with a career in business and foregoing law school all together?
A: Not really but I had always been interested in the entertainment industry and the job at NBC kind of dropped in my lap while I was at Wharton. I had a good academic record and received a telegram from NBC (then, part of the Radio Corporation of America) stating that the company was recruiting at Wharton. I interviewed for a position and got the job. When I got the job, I also found out I had been accepted at Penn Law School. I went to the Dean of Admissions of the law school and told him I had this opportunity I’d like to try. He allowed me to defer the start of law school for a year and the rest is history. I enjoyed working at NBC but thought I might enjoy the law better.
Q: Are there any parts of working in business or at NBC that you miss?
A: The entertainment industry is so darn interesting but I never regretted my decision to get out of that business and get into law. I was at NBC when Johnny Carson took over as host of the Tonight Show from Jack Paar. We were selling advertising, pricing television shows and figuring out how you calculate pricing with ratings and it was a very exhilarating experience, but the pull of law school was just too strong and I never looked back.
Q: Had you always aspired to be a judge?
A: I first got the idea that being an Article III judge would be extraordinary while sitting in my Federal Courts class at Penn Law School. My professor was the revered Professor Paul Mishkin. It dawned on me in his class that I could devote a good portion of my life to this unbelievably complicated and challenging system of dual sovereignty and, fortunately for me, the opportunity presented itself.
Q: You went right from partner in private practice at Drinker Biddle to Federal Judge. Can you tell us about your path to becoming a judge on the federal court?
A: I had always been interested in politics and while working at the firm I got to know then-Congressman John Heinz. I joined his campaign for the U.S. Senate in 1975 as chief financial officer, treasurer and general counsel. I was spending as much time on the campaign as I was working at the firm. The firm was very supportive of me and couldn’t have been nicer. In fact, right before Election Day in 1976, Lewis Van Dusen, then the firm’s unquestioned leader, welcomed me as a partner. Throughout his tenure, Senator Heinz encouraged me to do what I wanted to do and become a judge. He died on April 4, 1991 but his widow Teresa (now wife of John Kerry) continued to support me. Then Senator Biden, Chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee at the time, was also very supportive of my desire to become a judge. He pulled out all the stops to help me. It was a bipartisan effort that made me a judge – Senator Heinz and then his widow and also Senator Biden.
Q: What was your greatest challenge to becoming a judge?
A: Well, when Senator Heinz died in a plane crash in April of 1991 that was a huge blow. He was my champion and it could have been the end of my hopes to become a judge at that point. However, the combination of Teresa Heinz and Joe Biden made it happen.
Q: Are there any skills that you learned at Drinker Biddle that have proven to be particularly valuable in your career?
A: I learned so much from my senior colleagues and the great lawyers at Drinker. I can’t overstate how much I learned at the firm that proved to be extremely useful as a judge. Good lawyering is something I definitely learned there and it is an invaluable skill. The lawyers I worked with really had a big impact on my philosophy of what should go on in the courtroom. The firm had terrific leadership when I practiced there and it continues to -- which just delights me, since Alfy Putnam, for example, was a protégé.
Any way you look at it, good lawyering is something one learns at Drinker Biddle. I’ve learned over and over again here on the bench that a bad lawyer can do very great harm to his or her client and a really good lawyer can make a huge difference to his or her client. Lawyers really can make a big difference.
Q: Can you describe the philosophy you mentioned that guides you as a judge?
I actually wrote a piece for the Penn Law Review about it called Faces in the Courtroom. “My philosophy of judging remains that ‘we will ill serve the people before us if we don’t take note of the faces. It doesn’t mean you are just going to rule for the most sympathetic person, but it does show that if you know who they are and what’s really going on, you’re getting the whole story.’ You can’t do justice in any case unless you have the whole story. Part of the whole story is figuring out ‘who are these people?’.
Q: Did you have any mentors at Drinker?
A: Yes. I had many mentors including Henry Sawyer, Lewis Van Dusen, Ray Denworth and Bob Ryan. They taught me so much and rounded me out as a lawyer and as a judge. Henry Sawyer had a very dramatic style in the courtroom and Bob Ryan had a completely different approach. I learned so much just from watching them in action. They were both terrific courtroom lawyers and I took a little of both of their styles with me.
I was also blessed to work with so many talented younger lawyers at the firm like John Chesney, Wilson Brown, Alfy Putnam, Edward Posner and David Abernethy. I had great relationships with all of them. I have the highest regard for the Drinker lawyers. I have the privilege every year of admitting young lawyers from Drinker to the Bar of our Court. David Abernethy brings the new associates every year. It is always great to meet the new folks.
Q: What do you enjoy most about being a judge on the federal court?
A: It has been an extraordinarily wonderful experience. I had high expectations and they have been exceeded. What’s most extraordinary is the variety of cases I get to see. We have such a diverse docket in this Court. The cases are so compelling. I get to see cases I would never have seen as a practitioner. I thought I had a very broad commercial practice at Drinker Biddle but it pales by comparison to the matters I deal with here in Court. I did very little criminal work at Drinker Biddle. I was, however, appointed to do a number of habeas corpus matters at the firm. I handled most of those matters myself and it was a great experience. Other than that, though, everything I did was civil and half of what I do now is criminal. If anyone has a chance to do those types of matters, they should.
Q: What activities do you enjoy outside of your work?
A: My wife and I have a house in coastal New England that we love very much, especially when our daughter and son are able to be with us. I sing in an amazing audition-only choir at Saint Mark’s Church in Philadelphia. It’s a huge time commitment but it makes me stretch my musical skills and I really enjoy it. I’ve loved the cinema my whole life.