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Sheryl Ann Dorney, former York County judge, remembered

Written by Dylan Segelbaum/York Daily Record | Oct 13, 2016 6:46 AM
Sheryl-Dorney.jpg

Sheryl Ann Dorney used stuffed bears to build relationships with children in her courtroom. (Photo: File, York Daily Record)

Dorney was the first woman elected to the York County Court of Common Pleas, and served from 1988 to 2013. She died on Tuesday at 67.

(York) -- Kathleen Prendergast remembers having a conversation with Sheryl Ann Dorney about the portraits of newer judges that were being prepared to go in the York County Judicial Center -- mostly, her reluctance to the idea.

"She didn't want to have her picture done," said Prendergast, a family law attorney who was recently confirmed to the York County Court of Common Pleas. "I remember telling her that girls 200 years from now are going to want to know who the first woman judge was -- and that her role in history demanded it."

Dorney, who served on the York County Court of Common Pleas from 1988 to 2013, and was the first woman elected to the local bench, died on Tuesday at 67. She was known for being a colorful jurist, someone who was willing to voice her opinion, as well as an animal lover, often bringing her dogs to the York County Courthouse. Neither her cause of death nor any funeral arrangements have been announced.

Prior to her time on the bench, Dorney served as a prosecutor in the York County District Attorney's Office from 1975 to 1984, as well as an attorney in private practice. Later in life, she struggled with health issues, and lost her left leg to diabetes.

Retired Common Pleas Judge John C. Uhler, who served as district attorney from 1978 to 1982, and later on the local bench for about 25 years, described his former colleague as an aggressive prosecutor who was very sensitive to the rights of victims -- but also to those of the accused.

Dorney always had a "keen sense of humor," and she was not afraid to speak her mind, Uhler said. She "leaves a long legacy on behalf of the York County justice system, both as DA and on the bench."

"It's tragic, for the last several years have been fraught with significant health issues," Uhler said. "I'm sure she's in a safer place at this time."

When Karen Comery was in her third year at the Widener University School of Law, she tried her first criminal case as an intern at the District Attorney's Office in front of Dorney.

Comery, who's now an attorney practicing criminal and family law, said it was an experience she'll always remember. She recalled having to deliver her opening statement and closing argument at a podium, presumably because another prosecutor, Tom Kelley, had once done the moonwalk.

"She was a straight shooter. She said what she meant, she meant what she said," Comery said. "There was really no gray area with her."

In an interview, Kelley said he did the moonwalk once during closing arguments in a case -- it involved Michael Jackson--but could not definitely say that's why the rule was put in place. He credits the judge for being a great teacher, and helping him become "fairly adept" with the Rules of Evidence.

"She really took me under her wing as a young prosecutor," said Kelley, who's now a defense attorney and previously served on the York County Court of Common Pleas from 2004 to 2015. "And I really kind of learned at her feet, in a lot of ways, gobbling up the information that she would impart to me."

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