Francis Donnarumma (Secretary of the National Italian American Bar Association)

Il contributo degli italoamericani al sistema giudiziario americano

Nov 29, 2015 2142 ITA ENG

One of the most important and powerful fields of the American society, what we can generally call "the judiciary system", has seen and sees a very large number of successful Italian Americans. This is very important, because it means that not only they were able to reach economic success and make money, as we've already seen; but that they also gained the trust of the American people, being lawyers or prosecutors or judges, from the local level up to the Supreme Court.

To address this topic we're meeting one of those successful Italian Americans: Francis Donnarumma is a lawyer, the Secretary of the National Italian American Bar Association and Past President of the Connecticut Italian American Bar Association

Fran, what's the story of your Italian family, and when did it become an Italian American story?

My family's story really began on one mountain top, in Italy, in the province of Avellino. It is a typical story. Francesco Donnarumma, my grandfather, was born in the town of Frigento and my other grandfather, Michele Giordano, was born on the very same mountain top, in the town called Sturno. The two young men – twelve and fourteen years old – left Italy and came to US around 1910. They had not known know each other in Italy. Each arrived in Waterbury, Connecticut. Serendipity: Francesco's son, my father, Carmine, met Michele's daughter, Louise, my mother, and they married.

All came to Waterbury because of the factories that were begging for workers at that time. Waterbury's population total was maybe 30,000 people. In the course of twenty to thirty years about 10,000 emigrants came from Italy, just to Waterbury. It was a phenomenal attraction here, perhaps, led by poverty in southern Italy and emerging industry here in the States. Francesco became a butcher, Michele became a school custodian, and they had their children, my mother and father.

My father, Carmine, was an academic natural. He studied in New York and was hired with the initial faculty at the Jesuit Fairfield University. He enjoyed his whole career there, until he retired. Upon retirement, the University memorialized him, naming "Donnarumma Hall", the faculty office building. Almost all the other buildings are named after saints, so it was really a wonderful honor.

The coincidence is, again, Giordano and Donnarumma were from the same little mountain top: in Italy, they did not know each other and, yet, their lives intersected, somehow.

At the beginning of the mass emigration, Americans had a very low consideration of the Italians immigrated to the US. Now we have two Italian Americans Judges in the Supreme Court, and other important Italian Americans all over the US are successful judges, prosecutors and lawyers. How did this 180-degree turn happen? How did those people realized and succeeded to become that important and recognized?

I was given a great book about the earliest Italians in Boston, "The Boston Italians". The author is Stephen Puleo. He tracks another Italian who arrived from Salerno before 1900, James Donnarumma, who founded a newspaper called "La Gazzetta" which is still published by his granddaughter, Pamela Donnarumma. The author chronicles the abusive rhetoric directed to our ancestors, upon arrival in the States. Newspapers described them as similar to monkeys and chimpanzees. Public officials of the time spoke about their propensity to violence. In response, I believe, the Italians who came in that generation were driven to work harder than anybody, to preserve cohesive families, and to be assimilated into the US. During World War II, Italian Americans proportionally served in the US armed forces in far greater numbers than any other immigrant group. After the war, the young men who survived spread out all over the US and became successful in every field of endeavor.

My grandfather, Michele Giordano, fought in the World War I in the US Army. He was driven by the will to become American. He did not lose his Italian identity, but was driven to serve his new land. Later he became a national leader among Italian American war veterans as the vice president of the National Association of Italian American War Veterans.

Is there an Italian American who - according to you - can perfectly represent the contribution of the Italian Americans to the American judiciary system?

There is a quality of humanness and openness which I think is really distinctive among Italian American judges. Here, in Connecticut, in our own CIABA organization, we have several judges; Richard Marano, Salvatore Agati and Alice Bruno. I think that their Italian heritage gives them a great opportunity to identify with the litigants who are before them. There is the willingness to see the reality beyond the facts represented, obviously applying the law to the facts before them, but, also, seeing into someone's soul a little bit.

There is one historical figure, to answer your question: Honorable John Sirica. He was born in 1906, in my town, Waterbury, Connecticut. In those years, there were not many Italians able to study and, then, to become lawyers. He became an attorney and, later, was appointed as a United States District Court Judge in Washington, DC. He handled criminal matters. When President Richard M. Nixon engaged in what everyone ultimately recognized as grossly illegal conduct, some of the earliest associates of Nixon were presented before Judge Sirica. He was much criticized for his very aggressive questioning of the witnesses.

From my understanding, it was akin to the inquisitorial style of the Italian judiciary, where the judges were very active at examining witnesses. That was not the norm here, so Judge Sirica would often be criticized for stepping too far and being too involved. In the Watergate criminal trials he was very aggressive, as was his typical manner, because he knew the truth was not being revealed. Ultimately, he made the critical decision in the case known as United States v Nixon, wherein he ordered the White House, the Nixon White House, to turn over the secret tapes that ultimately broke open the case. His decision was immediately appealed to the United States Supreme Court, which upheld Judge Sirica's courageous decision. This is the beauty of the Italian history on the United States: the Sirica family from Italy arrives in Waterbury, Connecticut, their son goes to school, does good honest work, and finds himself in a political and legal storm that consumed our country. He acted boldly and successfully asserted the law against the most powerful man in the nation. He is really a heroic figure.

You are the Secretary of the National Italian American Bar Association. How many Italian American lawyers are members of this institution, and which are your main activities? Do you have local committees?

NIABA has existed for more than 30 years now. Our numbers are changing, what I can say is that the people with whom we are regularly communicating certainly are at least five thousand. We have wonderful constituencies all over the country. It was designed to be a freestanding association. We do not have branches throughout the country, but, we coordinate with other associations: the CIABA in Connecticut; the Italian Lawyers of Los Angeles in Southern California, and we are going to meet soon with an association in the San Francisco area, and another in Orange County, California.

Our directors come from the US - California, Florida, New England, Illinois, from many cities – but, also, Canada and Italy. What we do is promote Italian American lawyers: networking is our most direct benefit. We work with law schools, we publish a newsletter that gives information about Italian American lawyers and judges. We have a scholarly publication called "The Digest", published with the assistance of Professor Robin Malloy at the Syracuse Law School in New York.

We bring lawyers together. We move our board meetings around the country. We had our first seminar in Rome in October this year, and there were 25 American and 18 Italian lawyers present.

You also are Past President of the Connecticut Italian American Bar Association, CIABA. Are there many Italian judges, prosecutors and lawyers in the Constitution State?

I was president for three years recently. I am the first lawyer from Connecticut to become one of the four national officers, so I left being president in Connecticut. It is not only the law, not only the business networking opportunities: it is the kinship among the participants, what really is unique.

In Connecticut, among our directors is a lawyer, Louis Pepe, a very distinguished lawyer in our State, amongst our highest regarded lawyers. He is a past president of the Connecticut Bar Association and a member of 9 different lawyer associations. He always tells us: "No matter how many associations I am part of, the most fun is being part of CIABA." It is not just a professional association where you get seminars, knowledge, improve your particular skills, do what you have to do to move up the legal ladder of success: it is really more about coming together in a safe, relaxed environment, not competitive with the other members. During our meetings, there is something that has become a tradition. The first time it happened we did not know that it would become a tradition. One of our members, Mark Iannone, put a brown paper bag on the table and said "I'd like to discuss something with the board". I had no idea what he was getting at, and I said "Sure, Mark". He opened the bag and took out beautiful garlic, which he grows, a particular kind of garlic and he shared it, and somehow we look forward it year after year: "When is Mark bringing the garlic?"

And I am not saying it to play any stereotype, of course ... but we do not only talk about law, we talk about food, we have wonderful meetings all focused around food and wine, who is travelling to Italy, and we develop so many wonderful relations. In Italy, I visited the family of one of our members, Lorenzo Agnoloni, in Tuscany, and it was fantastic. I, also, went to Naples and met with the Neapolitan lawyer Giancarlo Pezzuti: he cleared his schedule and spent the whole day bringing us through Naples, and it was tremendous.

If you should mention one aspect of the American judiciary system that you'd like to bring into the Italian one, what would it be?

I confess I do not know so much about the Italian system. I do know that many Americans were perplexed about the Italian criminal system as we observed it through the eyes of American reporters in the Amanda Knox case. Then, I talked to Italian lawyers who spend work, as well, in the US, like Valerio Spinaci and Giancarlo Pezzuti. Both of them are sure we had a misimpression of the judicial system in Italy, because again, our knowledge comes through the glasses of American journalists reporting.

What I should emphasize is that in the American criminal justice system, the overarching goal is to protect the individual, at the expense of law enforcement, at the expense of the system. The protection of the individual rights is supreme, not to say that it is not in Italy. We have a much spoken explanation that "it is better that ten guilty persons go free than one innocent person being wrongly convicted". I think that is the trait of the American system. Certainly, in our system, we have many people who have been wrongly convicted; but the nature of the system is to focus on the individual and his rights. This emphasis sometimes causes public upset and, even, outrage; nonetheless, as lawyers, we must do as Judge Sirica did before us and follow the law as it leads us.

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