U.S. District Senior Judge Norma Shapiro, 87, of Penn Valley, a pioneering jurist in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, died Friday, July 22, at Lankenau Hospital of natural causes.

The first female judge in the federal court district made up of Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware, and the U.S. Virgin Islands, Judge Shapiro was nominated to the court by President Jimmy Carter in August 1978. Though she had not been at work for a few months, she had been planning to return to her duties on the bench, her family said.

Judge Shapiro was well-known for her involvement in controversial cases, including one about prison overcrowding in Philadelphia and another centered on public housing in Chester.

In 1973, Judge Shapiro became the first woman partner at the Dechert law firm. She was the first female member, and first chairwoman, of the Philadelphia Bar Association board of governors. She also was involved in various Jewish organizations throughout her life.

Balancing her legal career with motherhood during a time most women were discouraged from even attending college, Judge Shapiro "felt pretty strongly that women could do all the same things men could, but also thought it was important to stay home when she had little children," said son Finley.

He and her two other sons recalled how their parents instilled in them a love of learning. Finley Shapiro is an electrical engineer; Neil Shapiro is associate director in the office of the budget at the National Institutes of Health; and Aaron Shapiro is a facial plastic surgeon in private practice.

Judge Shapiro was born Norma Sondra Levy in Logan. Her father, Bert, was a Russian émigré who sold furniture, and her mother, Jane, was an English teacher.

After graduating from Cheltenham High School, she went to the University of Michigan, graduating in 1948. Three years later, she graduated from the University of Pennsylvania Law School. She was the only woman in her class.

While in law school, she married Bernard Shapiro, a doctor in nuclear medicine. He died in 2007.

In the best-known case involving her, Judge Shapiro oversaw a prison overcrowding case that would be part of the court system from 1971 to 2001.

In 1986, she set a cap on the number of inmates to be allowed in the city prison system. When the limit was reached, those charged with nonviolent crimes were let go.

The actor Charlton Heston, then president of the National Rifle Association, denounced her for the cap. Others expressed problems with her decision.

"We respectfully disagreed with each other on virtually every point of the prison litigation," former District Attorney Lynne M. Abraham said Friday. "She directed me to pick the prisoners I wanted released. I wouldn't do it."

Abraham said many of the released prisoners went on to commit serious crimes.

"That aside, she was always a thoughtful jurist," Abraham said.

In another big case, Judge Shapiro tried to improve public housing by placing the Chester Housing Authority in receivership in 1993.

Another pioneering woman judge, Anita Brody, also a senior district judge for the Eastern District, said Friday that she and Judge Shapiro conducted nearly daily conversations for decades.

Brody said Judge Shapiro "had a wonderful legal mind."

"I knew her for 55 years," Brody said. "Back when I was the only woman on the state bench in Montgomery County, she was the only woman on the federal bench.

"We would talk about woman things."

Judge Shapiro was also famous for throwing birthday parties for other federal judges every year.

When she won a national award in 1998 for being the first female federal judge in the region, Judge Shapiro said, "I really do believe you should do what you can to bring other women into the profession."

In addition to her sons, she is survived by seven grandchildren.

Funeral services are scheduled for 2:30 p.m. Sunday, July 24, at Congregation Adath Jeshurun, 7763 Old York Rd., Elkins Park.

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