Harriet S. Shapiro, Groundbreaker in Solicitor General’s Office, Dies at 93

Harriet S. Shapiro, the first female lawyer ever hired in the U.S. solicitor general’s office to present cases to the Supreme Court on behalf of the federal government, died on Feb. 1 in a hospice facility in Rockville, Md. She was 93.

The cause was heart failure, her son Alfred said.

Ms. Shapiro joined the solicitor general’s office in 1972 and spent 29 years there.

Perhaps what set her apart even more than being the office’s first female lawyer was her preference for writing briefs over making oral arguments before the Supreme Court. And it was her exquisite written presentations that made her a renowned figure in Washington legal circles.

“Harriet was an elegant brief writer,” former Deputy Solicitor General Kenneth S. Geller said in an email.

“Her briefs went for the jugular,” he added. “There were no detours or distracting verbiage. I’m sure the justices appreciated that.”

For many lawyers, appearing in person before the nation’s highest court is a career highlight; those in the solicitor general’s office do it routinely, and some seek to argue as many cases as possible.

Not Ms. Shapiro.

“I never thought I was good at it,” she said in a 2012 oral history interview for the Historical Society of the District of Columbia Circuit.

She did not like the performance aspect of oral presentations and found the preparation overly stressful. During the two weeks before an argument, she said, “there was a little cloud over your head all the time as you were thinking about what questions the court might ask, how you could present arguments that would be persuasive, not too technical, but technical enough so that you hit the points that you had to hit.”

After a decade in which she made only about 15 oral arguments — a rather low number for someone in her position — she shifted her focus exclusively to the written word. It was in the briefs where the evidence was marshaled and where, she believed, a case was won or lost.

As she put it in 2012, “I write much better than I talk.”

Ms. Shapiro ended up writing hundreds of briefs, appeal recommendations and petitions on a range of issues, including constitutional questions of equal protection, statutory questions involving environmental and labor laws, and questions regarding patents.

“She didn’t see herself as an advocate; she was a researcher,” her son said. “She liked the puzzle of it. She liked solving the problem.”

Ms. Shapiro in 1950, the year she graduated from Wellesley College. She later attended Columbia Law School, where she was editor in chief of the law review.Credit…via Shapiro Family

Harriet Morse Sturtevant was born on Sept. 7, 1928, in New Bedford, Mass., and grew up in Southern California. Her father, Alfred Henry Sturtevant, was a geneticist and a professor of biology at the California Institute of Technology. Her mother, Phoebe (Reed) Sturtevant, was a homemaker and a self-taught carpenter.

Harriet graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Wellesley College with a bachelor’s degree in sociology in 1950. She worked for two years as a Social Security claims examiner in Santa Rosa, Calif., before returning east to attend Columbia Law School.

While women made up 10 percent of her 200-person class, she said in the oral history that she never personally felt discriminated against. She did not consider herself a feminist. Professors would occasionally make sexist comments, she said, but her attitude was “It’s their problem, not mine.”

At the end of her second year, she was named editor in chief of the Columbia Law Review, the second woman in the history of that prestigious journal to run it. Working alongside a mostly male editorial staff in a position of leadership, she said, taught her to assert herself. In 1954, she married a classmate, Howard Shapiro, one of the editors who worked under her at the law review.

After they both graduated in 1955, they moved to Washington, where they worked for the government, she at the Atomic Energy Commission and he at the Justice Department.

In 1972, by which time Mr. Shapiro had become head of the appellate section of the department’s antitrust division, he learned that Solicitor General Erwin N. Griswold had been persuaded that it was time to hire a woman. Ms. Shapiro applied for the job and got it.

She officially retired from the solicitor general’s office in 1992 but continued to work there on a part-time basis until 2001.

In addition to her son Alfred, she is survived by another son, Charles; a granddaughter; and a brother, Alfred Henry Sturtevant III. Her husband died in 2019.

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