Born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Schwab received an Artium Baccalaureus from Grove City College, Pennsylvania in 1968 and a Juris Doctor from the University of Virginia School of Law in 1972. He was in the United States National Guard from 1968 to 1978, and was a law clerk in a Pennsylvania private practice in 1972, and to Chief Judge Collins J. Seitz of the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit from 1972 to 1973.
He was in private practice in Pennsylvania from 1973 to 2002. He began teaching as an adjunct professor at Grove City College, Pennsylvania, in 2001.
On January 23, 2002, Schwab was nominated by President George W. Bush to a seat on the United States District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania vacated by Maurice B. Cohill, Jr.. Schwab was confirmed by the United States Senate on September 13, 2002, and received his commission on September 17, 2002.
In 2008, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported Schwab had the "lowest ranking among federal judges" by 797 lawyers in the Allegheny County Bar Association.
In 2011, he was accused of bias and recused himself from seventeen ongoing cases.
In 2003, Schwab presided over the case involving Tommy Chong's trial for conspiracy to distribute drug paraphernalia (bongs), and sentenced him to nine months in federal prison, as well as a hefty financial penalty.
In 2008, Schwab presided over and was eventually removed from the Cyril Wecht federal trial, a case that caused considerable controversy. The defendant, a prominent Democrat in Pennsylvania, alleged that Judge Schwab was biased and the prosecution was political in nature and sought to have Judge Schwab removed, but was turned down. Among the controversial decisions that Schwab made was seeking to keep the names of jurors anonymous, a tactic usually reserved for criminal cases where the jurors may be in danger. This was overturned by the Third Circuit Court of Appeals.
After Schwab declared the original trial a mistrial, he was criticized for not following proper procedures before declaring a mistrial, such as polling the jury which would have determined if the defendant should be retried on all counts or just one.
One month later he was removed from presiding over the retrial. The Appellate court cited a "combative tenor" in the proceedings and hoped for "reduced level of rancor." On May 14, 2009, the new judge in the case tossed out most of the evidence against Wecht stating it was seized under unconstitutional warrants On June 2, all charges were dropped against Cyril Wecht.
In 2012, Schwab presided over the West Penn Allegheny Health System v University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC) case, and in a rare move, the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals removed him from case. According to Pittsburgh Post Gazette, "It's rare for a federal judge to get yanked from a case, and twice in four years gets everyone's attention."
On December 16, 2014, Schwab wrote that President Obama's executive action on immigration was unconstitutional in a case involving a Honduran man facing criminal charges for returning to the United States after being deported. Whether the discussion of the President's policy was necessary or appropriate to resolve the case before the court has been questioned.