Like mother, like daughter

Phyllis Beck and Alice Beck Dubow may have started a judicial dynasty.

Phyllis Beck (left) and Alice Beck Dubow, the first mother-daughter judges in Pennsylvania. Dubow wears her mother’s robes in Family Court. “Her voice is always in my head,” she said.

They speak in shorthand. Hate to cook. Share a passion for social justice and Scrabble and books-on-tape and La Bohème. Are both size 6 Democrats.

Now Phyllis Beck and Alice Beck Dubow have another connection: The first mother-daughter judges in the 231-year history of the commonwealth.

Two generations of judicial estrogen in the Keystone State? Hear she, hear she, Billy Penn.

Pioneering jurist Beck, 80, is retired from the bench but works four days a week as general counsel for the Barnes Foundation. Dubow, 48, was just elected to Philadelphia Common Pleas Court.

"The older I get, the more I look like her," says Dubow, who "shops" in Beck's Wynnewood closet once a year. "I certainly dress like her and have her demeanor."

Naturally, when Dubow decided to become a judge, her mother raised no objection. In fact, she ran her campaign.

"She clearly was 'the mother,' and very protective of Alice," says Dave Glancey, former head of the city's Democratic Party. "At the same time, she was emotionally invested in winning."

The emotion even expressed itself in Dubow's choice of garment at her emotional swearing-in ceremony July 30 - her mother's judicial robe. (Dubow managed not to cry, winning a bet with her husband and kids.)

"If I had to imagine the most perfect adult relationship between a child and mother, this is the one," says local lawyer David Fineman, an adviser for Dubow's campaign.

The Hon. Alice Dubow still wears Mom's robes every day in Family Court. "I feel her monogram on my back," she says. "Her voice is always in my head."

It is an impressive voice. The first woman to sit on the Pennsylvania Superior Court, Beck stepped down after 24 years in December 2005. In addition to her work at the Barnes, she is chair of the Independence Foundation.

"My mother never pushed me to become a judge," says Dubow, formerly deputy general counsel at Drexel. "To a certain extent, I liked the power and authority. It doesn't really matter that I will never be as much of a legend as she is."

In the legal community, Beck's opinions were considered "the gold standard," Superior Court Judge Susan Gantman says.

"Judge Beck is a very clear thinker and an outstanding writer," Gantman, 56, explains. "She took cases where legal issues were undefined and defined them in a practical way. . . . Her rulings were rarely overturned."

In 1990's Gruber v. Gruber, for example, Beck set standards by which lower courts could rule on custody cases in which the custodial parent wants to move to another state.

To Dubow, Beck's professional accomplishments are secondary. "My mother's genius is her close relationship with all her children."

Roy, 55, is an epidemiologist in Tampa, Fla. Judy, 53, and Dan, 51, followed the path of patriarch Aaron Beck, 86, trailblazing founder of cognitive therapy and professor of psychiatry at Penn.

Judy is director of the Beck Institute for Cognitive Therapy and Research in Bala Cynwyd; Dan's a cognitive therapist in Boston.

As youngsters, the Beck quartet was given only two pieces of motherly advice: Don't smoke cigarettes and don't get married before age 25.

To this day, none is a slave to the demon tobacco. As for No. 2, all three married sibs tied the knot early. Bucking the odds, their unions are still intact.

Alice Beck and Rob Dubow, 48, the city's new finance director, met as Penn freshmen on Feb. 20, 1978. (He remembers.) After less than a month, they were a couple.

Four years later, they made it legal. "I have a sarcastic wit and so does she," says Dubow, Mayor Nutter's first cabinet appointment. "We both enjoy life's ironies."

Mama and Papa Beck met in 1948 at a party at Brown, his alma mater. She was an undergraduate; he was an M.D. fresh out of Yale Medical School.

Married 57 years, what is the key to their success? "I'll be damned if I know," says the missus.

Bonding among Beck women extends beyond the immediate family. Every year, about a dozen aunts, nieces and granddaughters take a spa vacation together, courtesy of Phyllis Beck and her sister-in-law.

Along with manicures and massages, there are late-night talks, leisurely walks, vigorous workouts, line-dancing classes. And lots of laughs.

"It's so much fun. The best part is hearing all the stories," says Dubow's cousin, Barbara Whitman, 49, a Broadway producer (Legally Blonde).

Speaking of fun, Dubow's path to the bench was cherry pie compared with her mother's ordeal.

With four kids at home, Beck took night classes at Temple Law School. She finished first in her 1967 graduating class, which included five women and 75 men. Off campus, she was discouraged at every turn.

Acquaintances accused her of abandoning her family. Her pediatrician said her kids "would end up in the gutter." A man in her synagogue told her that "they wouldn't remember the smell of chicken soup on Friday night."

By comparison, Dubow had no children when she attended Penn Law School. In her 1984 graduating class, 76 of 141 were women.

Dubow began her career as a commercial litigator. Seven years later, in 1992, she was named deputy city solicitor under Mayor Ed Rendell. In 2000, after two years of tax law, she went to Drexel.

There was no "defining moment" for her judicial quest, Dubow says. It was a gradual process.

"As a lawyer, the valued skills are looking at a situation in black and white and doing what's best for your client. As a judge, you look at the entire picture. The longer I practiced law, the more I realized my personality was more like a judge's."

Says Beck of her fourth-born: "She's fair and honest and smart - all wonderful qualities of a good judge."

Dubow had put in years of preparation, negotiating squabbles between her son, Benjamin, now 19 and a sophomore at Penn, and daughter, Rebecca, 16, a junior at Delaware Valley Friends School.

"I had to make credibility calls and impose punishment," she says. "It reinforced my ability to have a sense of both sides of an argument and to not take anything at face value. I could always tell who was lying."

To prepare for her campaign, Dubow took off a full year. In May, she won both the Democratic and GOP primaries. The following month, Gov. Rendell appointed her to fill a vacancy in Family Court. In November, she was elected to a full 10-year term.

Dubow says her judicial philosophy is similar to that of her parenting.

"On the one hand, people should know what the rules are and that there are consequences for breaking them. On the other hand, they shouldn't be horrendous consequences.

"I give a fair hearing to everybody in my courtroom, I follow the law, and I show compassion when necessary."

With Dubow building the family's pistil-bearing judicial dynasty, will the gavel be passed to a third generation?

Her daughter will decide that for herself, Dubow says. If, some day, she does heed justice's siren call, it's a safe bet that shopping for a robe won't be on her to-do list.

The Beck women recycle.

Contact staff writer Gail Shister at 215-854-2224 or Read her recent work at