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Retiring circuit judge, a Carnegie native, ‘helped tutor generations’ |

Retiring circuit judge, a Carnegie native, ‘helped tutor generations’

Retired federal appeals Judge Ruggero J. Aldisert, 95, a Carnegie native, died Sunday, Dec. 28, 2014.

For 46 years, federal Judge Ruggero J. Aldisert drew on his experience as a Marine in World War II.

“If he taught us anything, the clerks, it was fearlessness,” said Robert Cindrich, one of Aldisert’s first federal law clerks. “He taught us as lawyers, it was our duty to stand up to tyrants.”

Last month, the Carnegie native, 94, decided it was finally time to retire. President Johnson appointed Aldisert to the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in 1968, making him one of the longest-serving judges on the panel.

“I love to write, and I have been writing in the law for so many years,” said Aldisert of Santa Barbara, Calif. “Now, I’m going to write novels.”

Although he’s a Johnsonian Democrat, Aldisert based his decisions on logic rather than politics, said U.S. Circuit Judge D. Michael Fisher. “He’s an icon of the legal profession in this circuit. He was never an ideologue. He was a centrist, a centrist who handed down judicial decisions with a lot of common sense.”

Aldisert was starting his second year of law school when he joined the Marines, rising to the rank of major while fighting in the Pacific.

Aldisert wrote his opinions but had clerks research issues and write memos explaining their opinions on subjects. He challenged sloppy reasoning, Cindrich said.

“He wasn’t rude, but he could be very forceful in the way he presented his opinions. You had to stand your ground with him,” Cindrich said.

One of Cindrich’s favorite opinions is a dissent the judge made in a case involving two Philadelphia councilmen prosecuted as part of the FBI’s Abscam operation. Posing as employees of a fictional company owned by a fictional Abu Dhabi sheik, federal agents looked for politicians who would accept bribes.

In the Philadelphia case, a federal jury convicted the councilmen, but the judge in the case overturned the verdict, saying evidence showed the FBI entrapped the men into committing an otherwise nonexistent crime.

The 3rd Circuit overturned the ruling to reinstate the verdict. In arguing that his colleagues erred, Aldisert compared the FBI’s operation to “secret police tactics” of the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany.

“Popular opinion may not care greatly about the fates of those entrapped and convicted by the government and its agents provocateur, but federal judges must care about the sword that is plunged into the body of trust between a people and their government,” he said.

Aldisert’s passion for clarity and logic in the law produced about 30 books and articles. His book, “Opinion Writing,” is “sort of a go-to book where you’re a judge,” said U.S. Circuit Judge Michael A. Chagares.

“He’s really helped to tutor generations of judges,” he said.

Aldisert took senior status in 1986 and moved west for health reasons. He carried a lighter caseload and used closed-circuit television to join other judges in hearing cases and deciding appeals.

“As much as I would like to see him in person, he’s continued to have a strong influence on the court even though he’s many miles away,” Chagares said.

Aldisert’s writings gave him a national reputation in the areas of advocacy, or how lawyers represent clients, and adjudication, or how judges go about deciding cases, said University of Pittsburgh law professor Arthur Hellman, who studies federal courts.

“There are lots of very good judges around, but there are not many judges who write about both advocacy and adjudication,” Hellman said.

What makes appellate decisions hard is that the judges decide many cases that come after the one on appeal, Aldisert said.

“I keep emphasizing that,” he said.

Brian Bowling is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Contact him at 412-325-4301 at

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