Long before she joined a historic class of women judges in 1979, District Judge Sylvia H. Rambo’s professional future began with a childhood vision. As her school bus drove past Dickinson School of Law in her home town of Carlisle, Pennsylvania, she knew she wanted to be a lawyer.
“From that moment on, I was a straight A student,” recalled Rambo, who was the first in her family to attend college. “I always used to be in the camp of the underdog. I was going to be a female Clarence Darrow.”
Rambo earned a full four-year undergraduate scholarship, and then was admitted to George Washington University Law School in Washington, D.C. But her professional hopes were nearly shattered in her first term.
“I was taking my first semester exams, and my proctor came up to me and said, ‘Sylvia, you need to answer the telephone.’ A surgeon told me, ‘Get home immediately. Your mother has a month to live.’ ”
Rambo quit law school, moving home to Carlisle so that she could care for her younger sister. Fortunately, within a few months, a neighbor volunteered to handle the sister’s care, and Rambo enrolled at Dickinson—the school that first inspired her to think of a legal career.
There, she thrived. Her motto as a lawyer and judge: “Work hard, work hard, work hard. Be prepared, be prepared, be prepared.”
Rambo worked for a Delaware bank, and returned to Pennsylvania when a local law firm lost two partners. She rose from a part time public defender to Chief Public Defender, and then served as a local judge before a new seat was created in the Middle District of Pennsylvania.
Her husband strongly encouraged Rambo to apply. “He was a very prominent trial lawyer in the area, and a great man,” Rambo said. When the two married in 1970, “He said, you have to keep your name, it’s too well known. I never discussed my cases with him, unless something funny happened. I did my work, and he did his work.”
Read the Series
This is the sixth in a series of articles about 23 women judges who in 1979 reshaped the federal Judiciary. In coming weeks, profiles of individual judges will be published each Wednesday. The next story, on Sept. 25, features Dorothy Wright Nelson.
Rambo’s mother, a German immigrant housekeeper, passed along two precious gifts: hard work and perseverance.
The latter served Rambo during litigation over the Three Mile Island nuclear meltdown, which took 20 years to resolve. It also served her when she was asked in 1992 to lead efforts to build a new courthouse in Harrisburg. Construction finally is underway, and Rambo hopes to stay on the bench until the new facility opens in 2022.
In the courtroom, Rambo remains committed to hard work and preparation. “You always have to be a little apprehensive that you’re doing the right thing,” she said. “Once you think, ‘I know what I’m doing,’ you’re off base. Every case is a challenge. Be sure about the case and the facts, and when you go into that courtroom, you are ready.”
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