16 September 2010

Women on the Bench: Judge Donetta Ambrose

By Ashley Owens, Executive Editor        

          Today, women in power are often categorized as too aggressive, selfish or masculine.   However, upon meeting Chief Justice Donetta Ambrose, none of those adjectives come to mind.  The first female chief justice of the Western District of Pennsylvania is confident and graceful, effortlessly commanding the attention of her colleagues through her clear intelligence and interesting anecdotes.  In September 2009, Judge Ambrose stepped down as chief justice at the expiration of her seven-year term.  Judge Ambrose will remain an active judge for another year until her next big decision on Nov. 5, 2010 – her 65th birthday.
          “My life won’t change much now after stepping down.  I just won’t have the busy administrative work.  My real decision is what I’ll do on November 5.  I don’t have an answer to that yet.  Do I want to stay on as the senior judge?  Retire?  Really retire?  Right now, I am open to all options,” she said about the transition.
           One thing is clear.  Judge Ambrose loves her job.

         “Being a federal judge is truly the greatest job in the world,” Judge Ambrose said.  “If you ever get the chance, you should be a federal judge.”

          Judge Ambrose’s career accomplishments are impressive.  She began her legal career as a clerk for the Honorable Louis Manderino.   She then worked as an assistant attorney general, and later worked in private practice and as an assistant district attorney for Westmoreland County.  In 1981, Judge Ambrose was elected to the Court of Common Pleas of Westmoreland County, and in 1993 Ambrose was appointed to the District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania.   She has served as chief justice since 2002.

          Judge Ambrose has also won numerous awards including a Special Recognition Award from the Pennsylvania Bar Association for implementing an Alternative Dispute Resolution program in the court, the Duquesne University Women’s Law Association Women of the Year Award, the Duquesne University School of Law’s Distinguished Alumna Award, and the Women’s Bar Association Susan B. Anthony Award.  Most recently, Ambrose was inducted into the Duquesne University Century Club.  These achievements make it seem as though Ambrose was on the yellow-brick road to the federal judiciary her entire life.

          Given these accomplishments, it is surprising that as an undergraduate at Duquesne, Judge Ambrose had no idea what a lawyer did and wanted to become an English teacher.  An older friend convinced her to consider law school, and she enrolled at Duquesne.  As it turns out, Ambrose’s influential friend was the late Carol Los Mansmann, who was eventually the first woman appointed to the federal bench in Pittsburgh.

          Once Ambrose began law school, her passion for learning combined with a zeal for “the wonderful job” of being a lawyer.

          “I always liked school, so I enjoyed the learning.  I loved law school.  The academics were very interesting,” she said.

          Judge Ambrose, one of only three women in the class of 1970, ranked high in her class, but received no interview offers from any law firms.  In fact, none of the three women were offered interviews.
          “It was only the beginning of the wave of women.  The Dean of the law school [Dean Manderino] happened to be leaving to take a position as a judge for the Court of Common Pleas of Pennsylvania.   He decided to take me with him," Judge Ambrose said.  "The second year, Judge Manderino moved to the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania, and I was able to go with him then too.”

         Judge Ambrose admits this was an especially difficult time for women in the legal profession.

          “Being a woman during this time was considered a novelty.  However, being a woman probably helped me get a job in the DA’s office.  Timing was important.  They wanted diversity, and they wanted a woman,” said Judge Ambrose.

          “There is still not an even playing field.  Granted, the climate for woman has changed to some degree.  But, women still have to work very hard to get business," Judge Ambrose said.  "It’s hard to be where men are.  Studies by the ACBA have shown that men are still at an economic advantage to women.  Also, we have committees for gender equality.  If it was equal, we wouldn’t need the committees.”  Judge Ambrose continued, “It is tough for women to do everything – take care of the household, their children, their parents.  Is it impossible?  No.  Women just don’t have the same advantages men have.  It all depends on the choices you make as a woman.”

          One important choice Judge Ambrose made was to return to her hometown of New Kensington when she was pregnant with her first and only child.  This decision affected her career enormously, as it led to her election to the Westmoreland County Court of Common Pleas.  Consequently, Judge Ambrose believes smaller things may lead to bigger things, and warns never to underestimate the communities outside of Pittsburgh.

          Judge Ambrose is the perfect example of how a bit of chance, a lot of hard work, smart decisions, and a true love for what you do can blossom into a wonderful career.  She sums it up with her philosophy for future lawyers.

          “You’ll find your place. If you’re a good, honest lawyer working for justice, you will be fine.”