Stewart Dalzell, 75, of Philadelphia, a federal court judge who brought deep learning and an ability to see the faces behind the facts of a case to his job as a jurist, died Monday, Feb. 18, of Alzheimer’s disease at his home.
Judge Dalzell was a significant force in the city’s legal and political communities, beginning as a lawyer in private practice in 1970 and culminating with his 1991 appointment by President George H.W. Bush to the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania bench. He retired in 2016.
Chief Judge Juan R. Sanchez said late Tuesday that Dalzell “was a collegial and engaging member of our court, who relished intellectually challenging cases during his 25 years of service on the federal bench. He will be greatly missed.“
"He was an absolutely fabulous judge, a brilliant man,” said Philadelphia defense lawyer Dennis Cogan. “He was among a handful of the best judges I’ve ever appeared before in all the years I’ve been doing this.
“All litigants looked up to him. He had a great judicial disposition and extraordinary knowledge of the law. And during a lull in the proceedings, he would talk about music and literature.”
Paul R. Levy, president of the Center City District, remembered Judge Dalzell as a problem-solver who could cut through complexities to achieve a resolution.
The two men worked to untangle a dispute involving the University of Pennsylvania and property owners on Sansom Street in the 1980s. At the time, the judge was a lawyer, and Levy worked for Penn. “Whatever the legal disputes were, he was practical and down to earth,” Levy said.
Born in Hackensack, N.J., Judge Dalzell grew up in nearby Bloomfield. He graduated from Bloomfield High School in 1961 and the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School in 1965. He took a year off to work as a financial consultant at NBC in New York before graduating from Penn’s law school in 1969.
While at Wharton, he majored in economics, but had an unquenchable thirst for learning, he told an oral history interviewer for the federal court in 1999. “I took lots of literature courses, history courses, philosophy courses — I loved it. I couldn’t take enough,” he said.
After teaching law at Wharton for a year, Judge Dalzell joined the Philadelphia law firm of Drinker Biddle & Reath on June 22, 1970. The previous day, the Penn Central Transportation Co. had declared bankruptcy.
“For my first 4½ years at the firm, 90 percent of what I did was the Penn Central securities litigation,” the judge said. “And a very rich experience it was, because I was exposed to some of the best lawyers you could ever want to see as a young lawyer in action.”
Judge Dalzell had become interested in politics after law school. He approached U.S. Rep. John Heinz in 1974, and when Heinz ran in the 1975 Republican primary for Hugh Scott’s vacated U.S. Senate seat, Heinz hired the young man as general counsel and campaign treasurer. Heinz won the seat in the general election.
In 1990, Heinz sponsored him when there was an opening on the federal court bench. After being vetted, Judge Dalzell was appointed to the federal bench by Bush in September 1991.
One of the judge’s favorite cases was Reno v. ACLU, in which the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the anti-decency provisions of the 1996 Communications Decency Act to be in violation of the First Amendment.
Another case involved a petty officer who was charged with disorderly conduct after swearing at military police who rousted him from sleeping in his car outside the noncommissioned officers’ club at the Willow Grove Naval Air Station.
The officer was convicted of the charge and fined $50. Because the incident occurred on federal property, the matter was appealed to a three-judge panel headed by Judge Dalzell.
"So, we look at the case. And, lo and behold, there’s a very interesting First Amendment issue here that the Pennsylvania courts, and the federal courts, had never addressed,” the judge said in the oral history.
“Could this be disorderly conduct? He didn’t resist arrest, there was no physical resistance; he just used the F-word. So, I reversed his conviction,” the judge said. He later learned from a public defender that the petty officer hoped to apply to another branch of the armed services and feared the misdemeanor would ruin his chances.
“There’s a lot of little cases like that that I’m very proud of, because we took the time to see his face,” the judge said.
A case that garnered national attention was that of Lisa Michelle Lambert, a Lancaster County woman convicted of stalking and killing teenager Laurie Show in 1991. Lambert was serving a life sentence for first-degree murder when Judge Dalzell was asked to investigate her claims of prosecutorial misconduct. He called a hearing.
Later, in a blistering opinion, the judge ordered Lambert set free and ruled that the state could not retry her. “The fact is the commonwealth rigged the proceedings so that it was a trial in name only,” he said in an April 25, 1997, Inquirer article.
The outcry over the decision was so intense that Judge Dalzell stepped aside in 2002 out of concern that personal attacks on him would delay further adjudication. Judge Dalzell’s decision was overturned on appeal. Lambert has since been sent back to prison.
Judge Dalzell became involved in a Home Rule Charter fight in the late 1970s, when Mayor Frank L. Rizzo sought to amend the charter to run for a third term. The judge formed a coalition in 1978 to oppose the change, and the change was defeated.
He served as president of the standing committee for the Episcopal Diocese of Pennsylvania. He was a member of St. Mark’s Church, where he served on the vestry and sang bass in the choir.
A movie fan, he often mentioned films in his opinions. He and his wife, Kathleen Regan Dalzell, were annual subscribers to the Philadelphia Orchestra. He also enjoyed literature, history, and spending time with family. “He was intelligent, curious, widely read, and a great conversationalist,” his family said.
In addition to his wife, he is survived by a daughter, Rebecca; a son, Andrew; and a granddaughter.