I clerked for one of the most honest, intelligent and qualified men to ever preside over a courtroom. His name was James Cavanaugh, and much of what I know about commitment and service in my chosen profession was learned in his chambers.
Unfortunately, while Judge Cavanaugh was the rule, there are more than a few unsavory exceptions in this city and Commonwealth. Those of us who are old enough to remember the Roofer’s Scandal don’t blink an eye at the possibility Justice Joan Orie Melvin committed improper acts. As the Daily News observed in a recent editorial, she is entitled to the same presumption of innocence as any criminal defendant. But there is no denying that the bench in this Commonwealth has had more than its fair share of legal lowlights.
That’s why I paused for a moment this week to honor the memory of a judge who not only gave his life to the law, but sacrificed his life for the law. He is not a local boy, not even an American. But his dedication to the proposition that obligations must be met, regardless of the danger, regardless of the cost, is something that we should all mark down.
Giovanni Falcone was born in Sicily, an island that has suffered through generations of violence and bloodshed because of the Mafia. Unlike the transplanted version that took root in America at the turn of the last century, the Sicilian Mafia is an even more violent creature that attacks both the innocent and the guilty, and infects all levels of government. It’s not a coincidence that one common nickname is “La Piovra,” the octopus.
Falcone was a man who loved his country as much as he loved the law, and realized that the best way to rid Italy of its poison was to employ that law at the highest levels. He cooperated with Rudy Giuliani in what some called “The Pizza Connection” to dismantle the Gambino family on both continents. Some told him to stop, because they were worried about his safety. Others warned him to stop, and threatened his safety. But Falcone had this answer:
He who doesn’t fear death dies only once.
Giovanni Falcone was assassinated on May 23, 1992 in a Mafia ambush when a half-ton bomb exploded on the road that he was travelling between Palermo and its airport. His wife, and three bodyguards were also killed.
Two months later, his colleague and close friend Paolo Borsellino was also assassinated. Borsellino picked up the mantle of his friend, despite the knowledge that he was inviting certain death.
We often talk about the misconduct of judges. It’s important to remember this part of the story, as well.