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.”
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.
Barron, who loves to taunt fellow councilmembers and even mayors over just about anything, took offense at the bill’s explicit banning of “taunting, baiting or ridicule,” suggesting that a parent can’t even take a verbal shot at a plate-averse umpire. Ex-councilman Henry Stern recalled two examples of the council violating its own new rule—when the Manhattan members branded one of their own “Benedict Arnold” for his decisive vote for Peter Vallone in the 1986 Speaker election and when Bronx councilman Mike DeMarco “almost came to blows” with Sanitation Commissioner Jerome Kretchmer.
“If I say, ‘Are you blind, ref?’ is that taunting?” asked Barron, who insists that he went to his son’s games for years and shut up because “I didn’t want my son to feel tense as a result.” There is, says Barron, “a certain level of sounding off that comes with sports; it’s supposed to be an aggressive event.” Like politics, for example. Bob Still, spokesman for the National Association of Sports Officials, couldn’t agree with Barron more—pointing out that none of the 17 states that have passed fan conduct bills have included taunting. “Verbal abuse and taunting are in the nature of sports,” Still says. “It comes with being aggressive and venting frustration.”
Barron also charged that the law “puts an additional burden on referees” by giving them the power to eject fans. “Refs have a hard enough time ejecting players. Now you want them to police fans? Imagine you’re at a basketball game, there are 20,000 people, and the ref is shouting, ‘Get that fan in the third row; he’s outta here!’ ”
The bill’s chief sponsor, Youth Services chair Lou Fidler, whose district abuts Barron’s, told the Voice that taunting was “kind of like pornography; it’s hard to define, but you know it when you see it. It’s when someone conducts himself in such an awful way in front of a young person, you know they shouldn’t be there anymore.” Fidler says he watches Little League games every year and “there’s always at least one out-of-control incident, where everyone wants to crawl under the grandstand.” Then rotund Fidler repeatedly mentioned fat jokes at the expense of kid athletes as an example.
Barron, as usual, put a racial twist on the bill (Harlem councilman Bill Perkins deliberately abstained, citing many of the same reasons). Barron said it could “lead to conflict and chaos, particularly in black and Latino communities,” where “we get on each other but don’t consider it a big deal.” Fidler replied: “I think that starts from an incredibly racist perspective.” The Voice is happy to report, however, that the councilmanic dispute did not lead to profanity or a scuffle, both of which are also barred by the bill. Anger management classes, however, one of the remedies of the Fidler law, may be in order.
Research assistance: Michael Anstendig, Ross Goldberg, Phineas Lambert, Sarah Ruffler, Brittany Schaeffer, Jessica Silver-Greenberg