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Italians Iced From Federal Judicial Appointments

Only one of 106 key federal judges in the city and surrounding suburbs is Italian, a civil rights group complained in a July letter to the governor and the state's two U.S. senators. The Tri-State Italian American Congress blasted this "shocking under-representation" as "outrageous," but neither Governor George Pataki nor senators Charles Schumer and Hillary Clinton have responded to the month-old complaint. Schumer told the Voice that he found the numbers "very perturbing" and vowed "to do everything I can to get qualified Italian Americans appointed to the bench."

The only sitting judge, John Sprizzo, was appointed in 1981 to a district court vacancy in the Manhattan-based Southern District and is currently serving beyond the 70-year-old age limit in a senior status capacity. U.S. District Court Judge Carol Amon, who was appointed to the Brooklyn-based Eastern District in 1990, is half Italian. The Tri-State list covers 67 District Court judges in the Southern and Brooklyn-based Eastern districts as well as 27 magistrates and 12 bankruptcy judges.

The relative absence of the state's largest ethnic group on the federal bench—with less representation than blacks and Latinos—is particularly bizarre in view of the fact that Al D'Amato, an Italian senator, played the pivotal role in federal appointments for much of the last two decades. Pataki, who is half Italian, recently negotiated an agreement with Schumer, who sits on the Senate Judiciary Committee, agreeing to nine District Court appointments statewide, none of whom are Italian. Since six of these appointments are in the Southern and Eastern districts, which extend from Long Island to Sullivan County, the number of metropolitan area judges will soon rise to 112.

Schumer, who's been a leader in the Senate on judicial appointments for years, has put a 14-member screening panel in place to recommend candidates for federal judicial appointments, but only one panelist is Italian. Similarly, Pataki's 12-member panel includes one Italian. In both cases, the Italian panelists are female lawyers from Buffalo, meaning that neither screening committee has a single Italian from the two downstate federal jurisdictions.

Schumer and Pataki participated in the recent decision to elevate the only Eastern District Italian judge, Reena Raggi, to the Second Circuit Court of Appeals. But news accounts indicate that Schumer also rebuffed a simultaneous Republican effort to appoint State Court of Claims Judge Joseph Maltese to an Eastern District vacancy, insisting instead on the naming of Staten Island Democratic district attorney Bill Murphy. With no Italian named after Raggi's elevation, a 78-year "Italian seat" tradition in the district ended. It started in 1936, with the naming of Judge Matthew Abruzzo, who was succeeded by Anthony Travia (1968), Mark Costantino (1974), and Raggi (1987).

A second Eastern District judge, Frank Altimari, was appointed in 1982, but he went up to the Circuit Court three years later, where he served until he died. Italians are well represented on the Circuit Court, with three of 23 judges, only one of whom, Raggi, was previously a district judge.

Edmund Palmieri was selected as the first Italian American Southern District judge in 1954, with three others, besides Sprizzo, named since—John Cannella (1963), Lee Gagliardi (1971), and Richard Daronco (1987). All but Sprizzo are dead.

Schumer has become a target of Republican anti-Catholic slurs for resisting Bush nominees outside New York, and Mike Long, the head of the state's Conservative Party, threatened to make it an issue in Schumer's re-election campaign next year. But Schumer has generally gone along with Pataki's judicial selections for New York, even endorsing Dora Irizarry, a Hispanic District Court selection rejected by the New York and American Bar Associations. Presidents usually make federal appointments on the recommendations of same-party senators from each state, but with two Democratic senators from New York, Bush has turned to Pataki. The governor has cut a deal with Schumer, granting him some appointments, as a way of steering the rest safely through the Judiciary Committee.

Former state judge Louis Fusco, the president of the Tri-State group, called on Pataki, Schumer, and Clinton to "take positive steps to remedy" what Fusco called "this ridiculous stereotyping of Italian Americans," which "seems to have found its way into the federal judiciary." Gregory LaSpina, the head of the Brooklyn Columbian Lawyers Association, said, "These statistics defy logic," urging "the people in a position to nominate someone for a judgeship to appeal to a very diverse community." John O'Mara, who chairs the governor's screening panel, expressed surprise at the paucity of Italian appointments, but insisted that the panel looks "at the quality of the individual, not the ethnicity."

Council Censors

With the City Council primary a couple weeks away, though barely registering in voter consciousness, and the local youth baseball season drawing to a close as well, it might be fun to take a retrospective look at a recent moment when the two boys and girls of summer came together. Unnoticed in the media, the council passed a bill, 48 to 1, designed to shut up loudmouthed parents, and other rambunctious fans, at all city-sponsored sporting events. Only Charles Barron, the ex-Black Panther who represents the East New York section of Brooklyn, voted against the bill, which appears to go further than almost every other code of conduct in the country.

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