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If the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office were a baseball team, Donna Zucker would be its star relief pitcher. In her 16 years at the D.A.’s Office, attorney Zucker spent a few years as a division unto herself — the only lawyer assigned to handle federal habeas corpus petitions, the final round of appeals. In recent years, the division has swelled to seven lawyers, with Zucker as its chief, overseeing a dramatically expanding caseload. New federal habeas laws put a strict one-year time limit on such appeals — causing a huge “balloon” of cases to be filed when the deadline arrived — and Pennsylvania’s current governor has begun signing death warrants, forcing condemned inmates finally to turn to the court of last resort. Zucker herself continued to argue cases before both the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania and the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals while supervising a cadre of lawyers who did the same. Along the way, she earned the respect of both the judges and her adversaries in the criminal defense bar. And in recent years, she has played an increasingly prominent role at a policy level and in educating the bar and the court. So when Zucker announced her retirement effective early this month, it was not good news to DA Lynne Abraham and Deputy DA Ronald Eisenberg who, as head of the law division, was Zucker’s boss. Abraham almost seems to be in denial, saying she will always have a post open in the office if Zucker decides to return. “I’m hopeful she’ll come back,” Abraham said in a recent interview. “She has been the laboring oar in our habeas corpus unit.” Zucker is not only “prodigious” in her output, Abraham said, but “always churns out high quality work. … No matter how much came in over the transom, she answered it — because we must. She’s the kind of lawyer you dream about having dozens of in your office.” Eisenberg said Zucker not only deserves credit for one of the winningest records before the courts, but also should be recognized for the work she did recently on the 3rd Circuit’s Death Penalty Task Force. Zucker was on several of the task force’s subcommittees, he said, and helped draft the local rules that control how death penalty litigation is handled in the Eastern District. Chief U.S. Circuit Judge Edward R. Becker, for whom Zucker interned in the late 1970s when he was still a trial judge, said Zucker “does the work of many people” and that the court is “sorry to lose her.” Becker described Zucker as “thoughtful” and “a wonderful lawyer” and said she established “a remarkable record” of successes before the 3rd Circuit. Another former boss of Zucker’s who is now on the bench is U.S. Circuit Judge Dolores K. Sloviter who, while a professor at Temple Law School, hired Zucker as a research assistant and later recommended her for the post with Becker. Sloviter remembered Zucker as “an excellent student” and said she has done nothing but improve over the years. “It’s always a pleasure to read a brief” Zucker wrote, Sloviter said. “It’s a pleasure to be on a case in which she takes the laboring oar for the city.” One of Zucker’s frequent opponents, Peter Goldberger, said Zucker has “outstanding professional skills” and a “mastery of a complicated, specialized body of law.” While prosecutors often have a winning record, Goldberger said that Zucker “has done more than that — she’s won the hard cases too.” STARTING OUT In a recent interview, Zucker discussed her years in the office and offered a few parting thoughts for her opponents and for the federal judges she argued before. A 1977 graduate of Temple Law School, Zucker landed a coveted post as a clerk to a federal judge in New Jersey only to learn just prior to starting that she was pregnant and would need to take six weeks off in the middle of the one-year stint. At first, she said, she feared that Senior U.S. District Judge Mitchell Cohen would get a bad impression of her since she was the first female clerk he had ever hired. “I was worried he would think ‘that’s why we don’t hire women,’ but he wasn’t at all like that; he was wonderful,” she said. Over the next few years, Zucker said she was constantly juggling the desire to work with the feelings of guilt that she would be leaving a young child with babysitters. She managed to take a year or two off between jobs but always returned to work when she and her husband, an assistant district attorney, felt that bringing in money was the more pressing concern. At the time, she said, women were just beginning to enter the legal profession in larger numbers. Her class at Temple was about 35 percent women. “I think we [female lawyers] all kind of thought we could have it all — you can work, you can have children, you can be married. … And the reality of that, at least in my case, was that it’s not so easy. I mean I had a great deal of guilt about that — working and having small children,” she said. In 1978, Zucker was hired by Judge Becker to work on the massive antitrust case of Zenith v. Matsushita, a post she held for about 18 months until the work on a series of summary judgment opinions was winding down. Again she took some time off, and then, after a brief stint in private practice with Gilbert Cantor Associates and another stint as a stay-at-home-mom, she was called to duty at the DA’s Office in 1984. ENTERING THE DA’S OFFICE Zucker’s husband was on the hiring committee and suggested her name after his exasperated colleagues said of an interwiewee: “I guess we have to hire him because there’s no one else.” At first, Zucker said she rejected the offer because she didn’t want to work with her husband. They assured her she wouldn’t even see him at work. Then she said she couldn’t face the hiring committee. They whittled the committee down to two. In the end, Zucker accepted the post only because she was told that she could work for six months, solving the office’s immediate need for a good brief writer and that she would find it easier to land a job once she had a job. When DA Ed Rendell left and Ronald Castille took the helm in 1987, Zucker was offered the post of assistant chief of appeals under Eisenberg. Soon after that, she took over federal habeas appeals and has been doing them ever since — first as a one-woman unit and later with the help of two others. In recent years, she said, the unit has expanded to handle the overwhelming quantity of work, especially the wave of death penalty cases that began when Gov. Tom Ridge took office and started signing death warrants. The death cases are extremely time-consuming, she said. “In a normal case, a lawyer will say OK, here’s three issues that I think are potentially viable that I think I want to raise. In a death case, that’s totally changed. They’ll raise anything they can think of and, in my view, no matter how frivolous.” And with the habeas reforms that came in the Anti-terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, she said, there was a sudden wave of litigation over unanswered questions about how the law would be applied. Zucker said the new federal law should, over time, instill much greater respect for state court rulings when they are reviewed by the federal courts. “A lot of the federal judges come from the state system. Those who haven’t are at somewhat of a disadvantage,” she said. “I think sometimes there may be a perception that state judges aren’t as good as the federal judges. I think that’s an unfair rap.” The new statute, she said, should restore respect to the state courts. “In the old days, a federal judge could come in and look at a case and say ‘I disagree with what the state court judge did’ and disagreement was enough,” she said. Now, she said, if a state court’s appellate review was “reasonable,” a federal judge cannot disturb the result. “What they are reviewing now is a state court decision as opposed to a state court trial,” she said. Zucker said she has always been impressed by the hard work of federal magistrate judges, the first line of review in habeas cases. “They really know these cases. They make a tremendous effort,” she said. When asked what she has always wanted to say to defense lawyers, Zucker smiled. “Could we just be honest here?” she said, as if speaking to an opponent. “I only want to be honest. I want everybody to play straight.” Continuing, she said, “I hate it when I feel that they’re trying to hoodwink me. I hate it when they lie. I hate it when they obfuscate. … I don’t think it’s their job to raise frivolous claims. And I don’t think it’s their job to lie to the court, and I’ve seen that happen.”

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