Armand Della Porta, 95, a retired Philadelphia Common Pleas Court judge who also served on the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania, died Saturday, Nov. 4, of complications from a series of strokes at his home in Chestnut Hill.
He was best known as a trial judge in Common Pleas Court from 1971 to 1993. In the first decade of service, he heard homicide cases in the criminal division; in the final 12 years, he presided over civil matters.
“Over the past couple days, I’ve gotten lots of emails and texts from lawyers who appeared in front of him,” said his lawyer son Armand Della Porta Jr. “What they said was that he had an ideal judicial temperament. He was fair to everyone, gave everyone a chance to say their piece, and was gentle and humble.”
The judge built a reputation for running an efficient courtroom because of the large number of cases he settled prior to trial. But he also cared about defendants, his family said.
While sentencing an 18-year-old offender in 1982 to life in prison, Judge Della Porta followed the mandatory guidelines with apparent regret.
Defendant Orlando Stewart was one of 10 West Philadelphia teenagers convicted in the 1981 death of University of Pennsylvania graduate student Douglas Huffman after a robbery attempt.
Stewart received a much harsher sentence than the others because he had turned 18 just before the crime was committed, and the law considered him an adult.
“This is the best example of how wrong mandatory sentencing is,” the judge said.
This past July, the judge’s comment resurfaced in news coverage of a U.S. Supreme Court ruling which held that juveniles are less culpable than adults because their brains are still developing. The youngsters cannot, therefore, be sentenced to life without parole under the mandatory sentencing rules. But the ruling left 18-year-olds without any relief.
“He was quoted 35 years after a case of his, on the front page of the Inquirer,” his daughter Adriana Dell Porta said, with obvious pride.
Superior Court James J. Fitzgerald III, a family friend, said Judge Della Porta was a man of great compassion who understood human frailty, and he used his position on the bench to try to help people – even the defendants he sentenced.
“He was a principled man who had a heart of gold,” Fitzgerald said. “And he took a lot of things into consideration before he passed sentence. He didn’t just drop the hammer. He encouraged defendants to get an education when they were in prison. He wanted to improve their lives.”
In 1993, Judge Della Porta was appointed as a senior judge to the Commonwealth Court, an appellate court that hears cases in which the state is a party. He served until 1995, when he retired.
A leader in his profession, Judge Della Porta wrote and lectured widely on methods of resolving civil litigation without a trial. He chaired a judges’ committee on sentencing guidelines for the Common Pleas Court and was a member of the Pennsylvania Conference of State Trial Judges.
A busy civic volunteer, he was chairman of the board of Northwestern Human Services from 1969 to 2000 and a trustee of the Free Library of Philadelphia from 1971 to 1981.
He served on the board of governors of the St. Thomas More Society and was a member of the Justinian Society and the American Justinian Society of Jurists.
In recognition of his achievements, Judge Della Porta received the Papal Honor of the Knight of St. Gregory in 1998 and the St. Thomas More Society Award in 1983.
He was a leader in his Catholic church, Our Mother of Consolation in Chestnut Hill. For 30 years until he was 87, he organized outdoor Stations of the Cross on Good Friday.
“We start at 11:30 a.m. and we do the Stations around Chestnut Hill,” the judge told the Catholic Standard & Times in 2009. “The first station is at Chestnut Hill Hospital, where we pray for the patients. The next stop is at the Presbyterian Church, then to a school on Crefeld Street, and so on.”
Born in Philadelphia, Judge Della Porta graduated from Central High School, Temple University in 1947, and Temple’s School of Law in 1950. He interrupted his schooling to serve in the Army from 1943 to 1946 during World War II.
He began his legal career in the office of Philadelphia District Attorney Richardson K. Dilworth, one of 28 prosecutors who loved their jobs so much that they hated to go home, the Welcomat wrote years later.
“The gently brilliant and self-effacing Judge Armand Della Porta” was one of Dilworth’s disciples, the newspaper wrote.
At home, the judge was no less gentle and kind, his daughter said. “He was the guy who taught me how to polish my shoes. He was a sweet man who would hold my hand as we walked to church.”
In addition to his son and daughter, he is survived by his wife of 63 years, Marie C. Della Porta; children Peter F. and Adrian, who is Adriana’s twin; and six grandchildren.
A viewing from 9 to 10:45 a.m. Friday, Nov. 10, will be followed by an 11 a.m. Funeral Mass at Our Mother of Consolation Catholic Church, 9 E. Chestnut Hill Ave., Philadelphia, Pa. 19118. Interment will be in SS. Peter and Paul Cemetery, Springfield.
Memorial contributions may be made to Our Mother of Consolation Parish School at the address above.