Below is an article that appears in today’s Fulton County Daily Report about last week’s Height of Excellence Gala, sponsored by Georgia Trial Lawyers Association in honor of Judge Anthony Alaimo. Judge Alaimo is an incredible American citizen and an amazing citizen of Georgia. We are lucky to have him on our Federal Bench and are lucky simply to have him with us here in Georgia. I hope you’ll get as much pleasure out this reading his speech as I did last week enjoying it in person.
Friday, September 26, 2008
The ‘pinnacle’ of a full career
Trial lawyers association awards inaugural judicial excellence honor to its namesake, Judge Anthony Alaimo
By R. Robin McDonald, Staff Reporter
(Zachary D. Porter/Daily Report)
Judge Anthony Alaimo is credited with reforming the Georgia prison system.
He was surrounded by hundreds of friends from the bench and bar last week, but Senior Judge Anthony A. Alaimo brought a host of other guests, from across centuries and continents, to the party.
In an elegant, six-minute speech, the venerable senior federal jurist from Brunswick recalled the words of poet John Donne, writers Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Marcel Proust, French composer Arthur Honegger and, indirectly from the Bible, King David and the prophet Samuel.
Alaimo was thanking the Georgia Trial Lawyers Association for creating the Anthony A. Alaimo Award for Judicial Excellence and for presenting him with the inaugural award.
The award, he told the gathering at the Ritz-Carlton in Atlanta on Sept. 18, is “the apex, indeed the pinnacle, of my professional career.”
“I’ve said before, I consider myself to be the luckiest man in the world because, in my entire professional life, I have been blessed to receive random acts of unearned good fortune. … I can find no more precious gift to one who has reached the end of his professional life,” the 88-year-old judge said.
At the event, Augusta attorney John C. Bell Jr. described Alaimo as a jurist whose life and service “are shining examples for the bench, the bar and for every soul lucky enough to claim that title, citizen of the United States of America.”
Alaimo’s life contains the stuff of legend—most notably his time in—and escaping from—German prison camps in World War II. But the trial lawyers association focused on his legal career, which led to the reform of Georgia’s prisons.
W. Fred Orr II, president of the trial lawyers association, said this past summer in an interview after the group decided to honor Alaimo that the judge was “the natural recipient” of the inaugural award as well as its namesake.
“He is still one of the hardest working judges in the federal judiciary,” Orr said. “He has been appointed by the chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court to almost every position of leadership that a federal judge can hold.”
Orr noted that Alaimo has often been brought into a foreign jurisdiction to oversee a case.
“When Alaimo shows up on the scene, within weeks, if not days, the case is settled,” said Orr. “He cuts through all irrelevance, immateriality. He forces lawyers to deal with reality. He’s known as a problem solver among federal judges. He doesn’t mind coming in and trying to be of help.”
Nor does Alaimo play favorites, Orr continued. “Alaimo does not give anybody any slack. He demands the best and generally gets the very best from the people who appear before him.”
Alaimo, who was born in Sicily and moved to New York with his family at the age of 2, was, when President Richard Nixon appointed him to the federal bench in 1971, only the second naturalized American citizen to become a federal judge, said Bell.
During his tenure on the bench, he has been a trail-blazer in civil rights and in punishing environmental polluters and a defender of the First Amendment. Some of his cases are now considered landmark cases for the reforms they initiated.
Presiding over a prison
The case to which Alaimo dedicated 25 years of his career stemmed from an inmate’s civil rights complaint at Georgia State Prison at Reidsville on which Alaimo embarked in 1972, the year following his appointment.
Reidsville then held more than 3,000 of the state’s most hardened criminals in segregated dormitories so crowded and violent that the guards had abdicated control of them to the inmates, according to an account in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
Rats were common and waste water stagnated in cell blocks, the newspaper reported.
At one point, stabbings and assaults were so common that, according to the newspaper, a former warden declared that “Jesus Christ himself couldn’t solve the problems.”
“It was pretty sordid,” Alaimo told the Journal-Constitution in 1997. “I confess I was shocked.”
When he first toured the prison, he recalled in July for The Brunswick News, he found inmates treated like animals, force-fed on the floor and frequently beaten by prison guards. “Some people just look at these people like prisoners, but they are human beings,” he told the News. “And how you treat them, it does matter.”
Building on an inmate’s civil rights complaint, Alaimo embarked on a reform of the state prison system, issuing a 1,200 page order in 1978 that became a model for sweeping prison reforms in Georgia and placed the prison under Alaimo’s control. Alaimo’s court-ordered improvements cost an estimated $400 million to $500 million, according to the state corrections department.
In 1985, conditions had improved enough so that Alaimo dismissed a court-appointed prison monitor who had acted as his eyes and ears during frequent inspections. In 1997, Alaimo finally dissolved the 1978 order. A portrait of Alaimo, painted by an inmate, hangs in Reidsville.
Prisoner of war
The son of Sicilian immigrants, Alaimo grew up in a home where the household language remained Italian. According to Bell, Alaimo earned his college tuition by learning to cut hair and operating a barber shop near the campus of Ohio Northern University, where he distinguished himself as a welter-weight boxer.
The day after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, Alaimo enlisted in the Army Air Corps. In an oral history available on YouTube, Alaimo meticulously recounted his sojourn as a pilot and soldier with a clear eye for small but striking detail.
After training to fly a B-26 bomber, he and his squadron flew into a hurricane in the Caribbean, crossed the Atlantic Ocean at a lumbering 160 miles per hour, and stopped in Gambia were “we could see the fires and hear the tom-toms across the river beating out jungle rhythms.”
They flew across the Atlas Mountains and the Sahara Desert and had a chance meeting in Marrakesh with legendary singer Josephine Baker, “a striking black woman in a white turban and clinging gown” who flashed “a sparkling smile” as she gave him her autograph. He also spotted Gen. George Patton “sporting his twin pearl-handled revolvers and riding boots” in a hotel dining room.
On May 14, 1943, Alaimo’s squadron completed its first bombing mission from England which ended, Alaimo recalled somberly, “with a crash of one of our pilot’s battered plane over the [air] field … . He had stuck with the ship in order to allow his crew to bail out but he failed to make it himself.
“Our euphoria ended,” he continued, with the return of another pilot who had sustained a devastating injury. “His eye was shot out and half of his face was gone,” Alaimo recalled. “I suppose that that day really marked the end of youth for all of us, because we were never the same again.”
Three days later, Alaimo and his squadron departed on a bombing run to Holland. The entire squadron was shot down. Alaimo, shot in the hip and right leg, crashed into the North Sea. The only one among his crew to survive, he was pulled from the icy ocean by a German patrol boat with a fractured right collarbone, a broken nose and head lacerations.
As a prisoner of war, Alaimo was interrogated by the Germans. On the video, he recalled, “We were never really trained in how to deal with these interrogators.”
Alaimo recalled his first prison was a “room with padded walls which led me to believe that it had been an insane asylum. The windows were shuttered and there was no light, and I remembered then Oscar Wilde’s description of his incarceration ‘when each day is a year and a year whose days are long.’”
Alaimo spent more than two years in German stalags, including Stalag Luft 3, which was made famous in the movie, “The Great Escape.” Alaimo himself was among those who helped to dig the tunnel but was transferred to another barracks before that breakout occurred.
“I cannot really describe to you the terrible feeling of claustrophobia which engulfed me when the gates of the camp closed behind me,” he recounted. “As we all know, the loss of liberty is one of the most serious injuries that can be inflicted upon an individual. … It cannot be understood without having personally experienced it.
“For that reason most of us take it for granted. Freedom of locomotion, freedom to go where you please without having to account for it to anyone—except maybe your wife—is one of our most precious freedoms, one whose value is not realized until it is taken away,” he said. “I vowed then that somehow I would get out of that camp, and it took me almost two years to do so.”
Alaimo made two unsuccessful escape attempts that resulted each time in two weeks in solitary in a windowless room on nothing but bread and water. His third escape attempt was successful after he switched places with an enlisted prisoner (officers such as Alaimo were housed separately and were not assigned to work details outside the prison camp) and escaped while cleaning up rubble in Munich left by the Allied bombings.
He made his way to France, then to Italy and then to Switzerland, aided he said by members of the French resistance, Italian workers—and luck. “Luck played a tremendous part without question … unless it was the unstinting prayers of my mother,” Alaimo recalled.
When Alaimo finally landed on U.S. soil in Bangor, Maine, “I got on my knees and hands and kissed the earth for the wonderful land that I never thought I’d see agin,” he said. “And I thought of those lines from Sir Walter Scott’s ‘Lay of the Last Minstrel,’ where he says, ‘Breathes there a man with soul so dead who never to himself has said, ‘This is my own, my beloved land.’ Whose heart has ne’er within him burned when home his footsteps he has turned from wandering on some foreign strand.’”
“I suppose all of us veterans returning felt the same within,” Alaimo concluded, as his voice caught gently in his throat more than a half century farther on.
‘A beautiful life’
At the trial lawyers association event last week, Alaimo closed with a reference to the finale of Honegger’s “King David”—an oratorio derived from the Biblical story—that he said would express his gratitude to those who had gathered to honor him. It also was a metaphor, he said—one that proved to be, in tone, close to that of his own extraordinary life.
Calling “King David” a “magnificent piece … running over the entire range of musical expression,” Alaimo told the gathering how the oratorio encapsulated the story of King David, “telling about the prophet Samuel and the Witch of Endor, of Saul and Jonathan, of David and Goliath, of David and Bathsheba and his [David’s] battles with the Philistines.”
“At the conclusion, it portrays David at the end of his life, sitting on the Mount of Olives overlooking the beautiful city of Jerusalem and the jubilant coronation of his son, Solomon,” Alaimo said.
“And as he contemplates the wonders of the universe and reminisces over his life, he looks to the heavens and cries out to Jehovah, ‘Oh, what a beautiful life this has been. Bless you for having given it to me.’
“And I join in that cry. God bless you.”
Staff Reporter R. Robin McDonald can be reached at Robin.McDonald@IncisiveMedia.com Greg Land contributed to this story.