Pioneering York County judge Sheryl Ann Dorney dies

Liz Evans Scolforo

Retired Common Pleas Judge Sheryl Ann Dorney was considered a pioneer in York County. She was the first woman prosecutor hired in the York County District Attorney's Office, the first woman to be elected to the York County bench and one of the first judges to take unconventional approaches to some matters, including comforting children in family court and sentencing animal abusers to prison.

A painted portrait of Judge Sheryl Ann Dorney at the York County Judicial Center.

Dorney, 67, died Tuesday, according to York County President Common Pleas Judge Joseph Adams.

"I received word (Tuesday) night," Adams said, and recalled fondly his interactions with Dorney when he was an attorney.

"She was one of my favorite judges to practice in front of," Adams said. "She was always full of energy — very bright, very intelligent.

"She always wanted to do the right thing."

During her quarter-century as common pleas judge, Dorney made news for the unusual sentences she handed down, and once for chasing a prowler.

Dorney,  who retired in August 2013, lived in both York City and rural York County, not far from East Berlin.

Dogs were her kids: When she retired, she told The York Dispatch she was looking forward to spending more time with her siblings, nieces and nephews and devoting herself even more to her 12 dogs — eight Jack Russell terriers, two sheepdogs, a Brittany spaniel and a cocker spaniel. Dorney, who never married, called the dogs her children.

Al Sabol, who retired as chief of the York County Adult Probation Office, knew Dorney for 38 years.

"She was a very good friend," he said. "I will miss her."

Sabol said if Dorney was your friend, you knew you could always count on her. If she didn't like you, well, she probably let you know that as well.

"That's the kind of person she was. You were never confused about her position or where she was coming from," he said. "There was absolutely nothing fake about her."

Dorney's ongoing health issues led to her being hospitalized April 2, according to Sabol, and she was never well enough to return home.

"She was a very strong, formidable woman, and I think she was a very good prosecutor and ... a very good judge," he said. "York County lost a great public servant. I just hope people remember her for that."

Dorney was down to three dogs at the time of her death, Sabol said, and family friends have agreed to take two of them. The third, an English sheepdog, still needs a new home, he said.

Trailblazer: Becky Downing, who retired as a lieutenant from York City Police before serving for a number of years as chief of the York County detectives, said both she and Dorney were breaking into male-dominated professions at the same time.

"We had a kinship because of that," Downing said. "We both took pride in our pioneering steps. I was honored to be beside her as she blazed a path of female participation in the criminal justice system."

Downing  said both she and Dorney were driven by their love of the law. In fact, Downing said, Dorney "revered" the law and her role within it.

"She absolutely wanted to go out and represent the law and females in the best light possible," she said.

By the time of Dorney's retirement, many attorneys practicing in York had begun to express concerns about her ability to do her job, and Dorney had struggled for years with a number of chronic health problems, including diabetes, which in 2004 led to her left leg being amputated.

"That wasn't the real Judge Dorney," local attorney Suzanne Smith said of Dorney's last couple of years on the bench.

A tough fighter: The judge Smith remembers knew the law, presided fairly, was sharp as a tack and treated jurors with respect.

"She loved what she did, whether it was as a (prosecutor) or as a judge," Smith said. "Next to her dogs, (her work) was probably the most important thing to her."

Many years ago, Smith took daughter Rebecca to visit Dorney after Dorney's leg was amputated. Rebecca, who was just a little girl and is now 17, told Dorney she hoped her leg would grow back, Smith recalled.

Dorney just laughed, according to Smith. Later, when the judge had been fitted for a prosthetic leg, she called Smith and asked that Rebecca visit her again, "so she can see that my leg grew back."

The judge was tough and a fighter, Smith said.

She did it first: Dorney came to York County in 1975 after being hired as the first female prosecutor in the district attorney's office.

Dorney was sworn in Jan. 4, 1988, as the first female judge elected to the York County bench.

Retired York County Common Pleas Judge Sheryl Ann Dorney

Two years later she made news again when, as family-court judge, she eschewed the traditional black robe in favor of a maroon one.

"I did it to be less intimidating to kids," Dorney told The York Dispatch when she retired. "A little girl (referred to) me as a witch one day. I'd read about a judge ... who wore a different color robe so children would be comfortable. That's when I got the maroon robe and wore it for child-custody cases."

Fellow Common Pleas Judge Stephen P. Linebaugh called the decision innovative.

"She was never afraid to do something that was out of the ordinary," he said. "She was, at times, unorthodox. But it was creative thinking. It was trying ... to do justice."

For years Dorney kept a framed poster on a wall of her courtroom that read, "Justice, justice thou shalt pursue."

'Made a difference': She presided over criminal and civil cases as well, but after retiring it was her work in family court that she most missed. During her time there, she regularly gave stuffed animals to abused and neglected children.

"I really think I made a difference there," she said. "I always had a passion for helping children."

At the time of her retirement, Dorney said she held the distinction of handing down the county's two longest criminal sentences in cases that didn't involve murder — to William Babner and William "Mike" Stankewicz.

Babner is serving a 117- to 235-year state prison sentence for kidnapping two college students at gunpoint in January 2000 in Goldsboro, raping the young woman and leaving both for dead after ordering them into the Susquehanna River and shooting them in their faces. They both survived.

School attack: Dorney sentenced Stankewicz to 132 to 264 years in prison for his February 2001 machete attack on a kindergarten class at North Hopewell-Winterstown Elementary School. Eleven students, two teachers and Principal Norina Bentzel were hurt, but Bentzel and others managed to disarm the man. While imposing sentence, Dorney called Stankewicz a coward.

Her more unorthodox sentences included ordering a thief to send her a birthday card every year he was in prison and on probation, "because the offense happened on my birthday," she said.

She once ordered a domestic abuser to apologize to his wife — whose eyes he'd blackened — by taking her to dinner at Red Lobster and buying her flowers.

And in October 1996, when she still lived on West Locust Street in York City, Dorney and her neighbors chased a prowler, but he got away.

Animal advocate: A well-known animal lover, Dorney considered herself a pioneer for handing down prison sentences for animal abuse and cruelty.

"Eventually, the other judges started to hand down prison sentences for abuse of animals, too," she said.

Dorney sentenced a Lower Windsor Township trucker to a minimum of three months in prison for deliberately running over a 14-year-old dog that was confused, wandering on Winterstown Road in Hopewell Township and delaying traffic in 2002.

"His excuse was, 'I was late for work,'" Dorney recalled. "I just could not believe somebody could do that to an animal."

She sentenced a Dallastown man to at least a month in prison for mortally wounding a kitten by hurling it against a wall in Yoe in 2001. Authorities said the act was witnessed by a half-dozen small children.

Smuggled pups: The judge also was known for smuggling puppies into the old courthouse, two or three at a time, primarily offspring of her Jack Russell terriers.

"They were so tiny, I used to bring them to work in my pockets," she said.

Dorney was born and raised in Quakertown, Bucks County.

She graduated No. 2 in her class from Mansfield University in 1971, then from Valparaiso University School of Law in Indiana in 1974.

— Reach Liz Evans Scolforo at or on Twitter at @LizScolforoYD.