i-ItalyNY - 5thBirthday Special Issue. The Best of i-Itay - page 28

28 |
i-Italy Magazine
| Special Issue | Winter 2017-2018
reasons, and that turnedout not beoneof themajor
factors. Here’s the thing. Before I became a judge
I was a federal prosecutor in New Jersey, and we
handled, among other cases, a very big case involv-
ing an Italian-American organized crime family.
The case did not go well, and that’s what this was
about, that somehowmy officehadnot donewhat it
should have done, and people were trying to make
something of it. But such connections to themafia
have always haunted ItalianAmericans, this suspi-
cion that every Italian American must have some
connection to organized crime. It’s a hard thing
to shake.
Does it bother you?
It does bother me, because I think it’s very unfair
and influences thewaypeople think.When they see
someonewithan Italian last name, the thought still
crosses their minds.
You were also opposed for your conservative
leanings, which seem to be related, if not to
your ethnic origin, to some broader values of
the community you grew up in. In the late 60s
andearly70s,whenyouwereastudent atPrinc-
etonandYale, youbecamerathercritical of your
fellowstudents “acting irresponsibly.” And this
contrasted, you later said, with the “good sense
and thedecencyof thepeople”back inyourown
community.Would you elaborate a little on this
At that time there was a feeling among a lot of col-
lege studentswhocame frommuchmoreprivileged
backgrounds than I did that there was something
wrong with their parents’ values and the kind of
lives their parents lived. That their parents had sold
out, that theyhadbecome affluent by taking advan-
tage of other people, that they were very material-
istic and status conscious … I didn’t feel that way
at all about my parents or about my family. They
weren’t privileged. By that point they were solidly
middle class, but everything theyhadachieved they
had achieved on their own through hardwork and
self-sacrifice. So I thought that whole view of the
generation towhichmy parents belongedwas false.
Perhaps it was true of some people in that genera-
tion, but certainly itwasn’t trueof thepeople Iknew.
I think thatwas theprimary thing. The other had to
dowithviews of theUnitedStates.Myparentswere
quite patriotic. My father had served for five years
in the army during WWII, and this was the time
of the VietnamWar, andmost of the students were
opposed to the war, which I could understand. But
to me that was a political disagreement with the
civilian leadership of the country, and to transfer
that to an antipathy toward the United States—or
to blame the soldiers, ordinary soldiers who had
gone there, most of whom had been drafted—I
thought that was very wrong.
After the late Justice Scalia, you were the sec-
ond Italian American to be nominated to the
Supreme Court. Have you ever thought—as
Mario Cuomo reportedly did upon becoming
Governor of New York—that the Italians had
“finallymade it”?
Italian Americans have achieved success in every
walk of life in the United States, and I think that
everything is open topeopleof Italianancestrynow.
What concerns me is that Italian Americans and
their descendants are going to forget their past.
Both of my parents are of Italian ancestry, but my
children are of half Italian ancestry, and if I have
grandchildren there’s a fair chance that they could
be 1/4 Italian and my great-grandchildren will be
1/8…This is ameasure of theway inwhich Italians
have been integrated into broader American soci-
ety. And there’s nothing bad about that. It’s a good
thing. What I’m concerned about is that the cul-
tural history and hard experiences of Italians who
came to the US will be forgotten. It’s important to
people as individuals because it is their heritage,
but it’s also very important for the history of the
United States, and I think it’s relevant to the issues
that we are grappling with right now.
There is yet another Italian connection in your
story. In college youwrote your senior thesis on
the Italian Constitutional Court. Some people
say that even back then you expected to sit on
the Court some day…
Well, I never really expected to get here! When I
was in college I was very interested in the Supreme
Court, yes, and I actually did get a little scholar-
ship during the summer to go to Italy to study the
ItalianConstitutional Court, which is what I wrote
my senior thesis on. So when I came back I was
trying to write something humorous for my entry
in the yearbook, and I wrote, “I dream of warming
a seat on the Supreme Court.” But I never thought
it wouldhappenuntil themoment when I received
the phone call saying that the President was go-
ing to nominate me. It’s a wonderful privilege to
be here.
This enormous building is an impressive piece
of neo-classic architecture. Don’t you feel it’s a
bit intimidatingwhenyou findyourselfwalking
these corridors, at night on your way home?
Well, that’s exactly right. On a daily basis, when I’m
coming to work, I don’t think about it. This is the
place where I work; it’s my office. But sometimes,
if I stay late, if the building is pretty much empty,
and I walk through these corridors, it actually hits
me. “You are now a justice on the Supreme Court.
Howdid that ever happen…” But letme tell youone
other thing about the building. It is amarble build-
ing, finished in 1935. We have a curator who keeps
track of everything about the history of the court.
I asked her once if she had any information about
themenwho built this building, because obviously
many of themwere stonemasons, and at that time
a high percentage of the stonemasons in the U.S.
were Italian—it was a craft that they had in Italy
andbrought here.Unfortunately, shehadno record
whatsoever of the men who built this building
during the Depression, but I imagine lots of
Italian immigrants were involved in building
this structure.
Italian Americans have
achieved success in every
walk of life in the U.S. What
concerns me is that their
cultural history and hard
experiences will be forgotten.
It’s important to people as
individuals because it is
their heritage, but it’s also
very important for the
history of the United States.
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