Alle-Kiski Valley’s Donetta Ambrose, authorized trailblazer, retires from U.S. District Courtroom after 28 years


For a time within the mid-Nineteen Seventies, Donetta W. Ambrose was the one girl working towards regulation in Westmoreland County.

Then in 1981, she grew to become the primary girl to be elected as a Westmoreland County Courtroom of Frequent Pleas choose.

Later, after former President Invoice Clinton appointed Ambrose to be a federal choose within the U.S. District Courtroom of Western Pennsylvania, she grew to become the primary girl to function chief choose in Pittsburgh.

“I’m not going to say it wasn’t troublesome, as a result of it was,” mentioned Ambrose, an Arnold native who previously lived in New Kensington and Decrease Burrell earlier than shifting to Oakmont 4 years in the past.

She mentioned it was made simpler alongside the best way by a supportive husband, shut household and pals.

“My husband was an important visionary. He was satisfied I might be good for it, and I might adore it,” Ambrose mentioned. “And he was proper.”

Ambrose, 76, took inactive standing from her work on the federal bench on Feb. 1 after serving there for greater than 28 years. She’s going to depart about 15 prison instances unfinished, together with one in opposition to the person accused of killing 11 individuals on the Tree of Life synagogue taking pictures in Pittsburgh’s Squirrel Hill.

That case will now be dealt with by U.S. District Choose Robert Colville.

Ambrose mentioned she plans to spend retirement centered on her 11-year-old grandson.

“I by no means wished to be that one who handed at her desk,” she mentioned. “I really like being a choose. There are different issues in my life I really like extra.”

Being a trailblazer

Ambrose graduated from Duquesne College in 1967 and its regulation college in 1970. There have been solely 4 ladies in her class.

After commencement, she accomplished a two-year clerkship with Pennsylvania Supreme Courtroom Justice Louis Manderino after which joined the state lawyer common’s workplace engaged on civil rights litigation for a few years.

As she and her husband, Ray, an lawyer in New Kensington, began their household, Ambrose joined the Westmoreland County District Legal professional’s workplace as a part-time prosecutor.

Throughout her time there, she served as one of many prosecutors within the notorious Kill for Thrill case in opposition to John Lesko and Michael Travaglia, who had been convicted of killing 4 individuals in Western Pennsylvania over eight days in late 1979 and early 1980.

Then, in 1981, the Westmoreland County Frequent Pleas courtroom had three vacancies, and Ambrose joined a subject of 13 candidates to hunt a seat on the bench. She was the one girl.

Though some individuals had been immune to the thought of a lady serving as a choose, Ambrose mentioned, it was across the identical time when President Ronald Reagan nominated Sandra Day O’Connor to be the nation’s first feminine U.S. Supreme Courtroom justice.

Ambrose remembers that, on the time, the Latrobe Bulletin referred to as her “Westmoreland’s Personal Sandra Day O’Connor.”

She received and took her seat on the bench in 1982. She beloved the work there. For her, it was concerning the human curiosity — listening to the tales, the thought of serving to. She mentioned she additionally loved watching trial attorneys and the mission she shared together with her colleagues.

Ambrose remained in Frequent Pleas Courtroom till 1993 when she was appointed to the U.S. District Courtroom of Western Pennsylvania.

She mentioned leaving state courtroom was bittersweet. However federal courtroom supplied an entire totally different set of stakes and ambiance, she added.

Former regulation clerk Tina Miller mentioned one among Ambrose’s first, main instances in federal courtroom concerned then-Allegheny County Justice of the Peace Choose Jules Melograne, who was indicted in November 1994 on fees that he conspired to repair tons of of instances in Allegheny County with Walter V. “Bo” Cross.

The trial started Oct 23, 1995, and a responsible verdict was returned on Jan. 24, 1996.

Ambrose, who refused to speak about any particular person case, mentioned one among her favourite components of being a choose was presiding over trials.

“Trials are at all times enjoyable, and once I say enjoyable, I imply it,” she mentioned. “It’s nice to see the attorneys in motion.”

However she additionally spoke fondly of presiding over multi-district litigation and different components of the courtroom, as properly.

“I believe I appreciated every thing,” she mentioned. “Day-after-day was attention-grabbing.”

Being a mentor

Ambrose mentioned among the best issues about being a choose is consistently studying.

“I really like that,” she mentioned.

Ambrose took that love and shared it together with her regulation clerks and fellow attorneys.

Miller, who grew up in West Leechburg and now’s a associate within the Downtown Pittsburgh regulation agency Reisinger Comber & Miller, spent about three years as Ambrose’s clerk — first in Westmoreland County after which in federal courtroom.

“I completely suppose the world of her,” Miller mentioned.

She referred to as Ambrose an outstanding boss who was prepared to sit down down together with her clerks and regulation college students to debate what they noticed in courtroom every day and to parse out what was efficient and what wasn’t.

“She was very beneficiant together with her time (and was at all times) making an attempt to be a mentor and instructor,” Miller mentioned. “For a younger lawyer to have the ability to get a choose’s perspective on how issues had been going within the courtroom and what her observations had been, it was much more useful than regulation college.”

Miller mentioned Ambrose confirmed her the trail that ladies needed to journey to get to the place she was.

“Whereas she broke down limitations, she at all times held her hand out to drag different individuals alongside together with her,” Miller mentioned.

She praised Ambrose’s common sense and customary sense.

“She makes everybody really feel like they’re heard, and their argument is known and revered,” Miller mentioned. “That’s so vital.”

When Ambrose first joined the federal courtroom, the sentencing tips had been obligatory — judges had no discretion to go decrease or increased on a defendant’s punishment.

However in 2005, the rules grew to become advisory, giving judges an opportunity to make their very own determinations.

Ambrose mentioned that requires a whole lot of thought and an actual understanding about an individual’s scenario.

“The choose has extra duty, and you need to do the precise factor,” she mentioned.

Ambrose referred to as sentencing essentially the most troublesome a part of being a choose.

“If it isn’t essentially the most troublesome half, you shouldn’t be there,” she mentioned.

Ambrose proved herself so good at being a choose that she was requested repeatedly throughout her tenure to show at what is named “Child Judges College” via the Federal Judicial Convention — the coaching organized for newly confirmed district courtroom judges.

Present Chief Choose Mark Hornak mentioned his former colleague was good for educating incoming judges about their work, given her persistence, information, mind and humanity.

Ambrose served as chief choose within the Western District from 2002 to 2009. Throughout that point, the courtroom in Pittsburgh had a number of vacancies however Ambrose helped the bench thrive regardless of it being short-staffed, Hornak mentioned.

“She did it by partaking individuals,” he mentioned.

Hornak referred to as Ambrose an engaged, inclusive one who sought to assist individuals discover their very own options.

He added that she was no pushover.

Throughout her time as chief choose, Ambrose ushered within the age of digital case submitting, helped create the Various Dispute Decision program to resolve civil instances and expanded the position of U.S. Justice of the Peace judges in Pittsburgh to tackle further tasks, Hornak mentioned.

“She put our courtroom on the innovative and have become a mannequin for different courts across the nation,” he mentioned.

Whereas Ambrose is acknowledged as a trailblazer for girls, Hornak mentioned, she by no means missed an opportunity to assist male attorneys, as properly. He referred to as her “essentially human.”

“She by no means forgot it’s not concerning the choose or the attorneys, it’s concerning the litigants, the residents,” he mentioned.

Now, Ambrose mentioned, it will likely be about her household.

She moved to Oakmont about 4 years in the past to be near her son and his household.

She’s trying ahead to spending time together with her 11-year-old grandson, her older sister and the remainder of her household.

“My grandson is the main focus of my life and an important factor in my life,” Ambrose mentioned.

She’s been a member of the identical month-to-month card membership together with her pals since 1979 and continues to have Zoom calls with 4 shut faculty pals.

She mentioned she’s been cautious because the begin of the covid-19 pandemic and has no plans to renew journey.

Ambrose walks every single day, performs pickle ball and enjoys swimming, studying and watching British police dramas on tv. She’s additionally working her means via the fourth season of Ozark on Netflix.

“I really like being in all day,” she mentioned. “I don’t thoughts it a bit.”

Paula Reed Ward is a Tribune-Evaluation employees author. You’ll be able to contact Paula by e-mail at or through Twitter .

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