Beyond family and personal friends, few people can truly appreciate Judge Anthony J. DeFino as much as the Philadelphia Criminal Trial Lawyers who had the honor of appearing before him. I met Judge DeFino in 1972 when he and his wife Rose attended my wedding. After I passed the bar in 1976, we would often see each other in Philadelphia City Hall, each of us busy trial lawyers. The difference of course was that I was the young upstart while he was the seasoned master. He was always ready to put his arm around me, calm my nerves, and lend some fatherly legal advice. I will never forget my first opportunity to appear before Judge DeFino after he was elected to the Court of Common Pleas in 1988. I wasn’t just appearing before a Judge, I was appearing before my friend and second mentor. My first mentor was A. Charles Peruto, Sr. who we lost on December 17, 2013. I remember however a distinct difference in the appearance of my friend when I first ventured into his courtroom. You see he was a tall man, impeccable dresser, always perfectly groomed, handsome, with a full head of perfectly combed black hair. When he stood up behind that bench, with his hands on his hips, he towered over the courtroom. He had a habit of looking back and forth across the room like a General reviewing his troops. Yes sir he was transformed! He was the iconic vision of a Judge, very imposing. Then he spied me walking into the courtroom, and that signature smile broke out and then came the words, uttered with a South Philly accent, “What can we do for you today Mr. D” Always to be followed with, “How’s your father-in law? They were great friends! Not to digress but there’s a story that one time Chuck Sr. who chain smoked nearly until the day he died, was cross-examining a witness in a waiver trial before Judge DeFino, when he unconsciously, or maybe not, pulled out a cigarette , lit it without blinking, and continued with the cross. It’s said that Judge DeFino let him get away with it. After all it was his buddy Chuck.
In my respectful opinion, no one is as qualified to evaluate a judge as much as the experienced trial lawyers who have appeared before him. Judges cannot do it because unfortunately some have never been trial lawyers and truly have no idea what it is like to fight from the trenches. Even those who were trial lawyers may have a less objective, more forgiving opinion. Nor can such an evaluation be done by the witness, litigants, or the court personnel. But the lawyers, wether Defense or Prosecution, have a stake in the matter and also have their reputations on the line. In the case of the defense lawyers, they have the freedom of their clients in their hands. The trial lawyers are the only ones who are in a position to objectively evaluate a judge. So having appeared before Judge DeFino as a Philadelphia Criminal Trial Lawyer, for nearly forty years I can state without the slightest reservation that in my time, he was the finest judge, to grace the bench of the Court of Common Pleas of Philadelphia County. Let me explain. He started promptly at 9:30 am and expected everyone, lawyers, as well as the court personal to be ready to go. He worked incessantly, even if he was sick. He knew how to try a case because he was a trial lawyer himself. He knew how to work through and resolve legal issues so as not to delay the trial. He didn’t believe in most of the excuses that prospective jurors would proffer in an attempt to avoid jury service. He would do his own rehabilitating and the reluctant prospective juror would either end up on the jury or be stricken. Consequently, jury selection moved quickly. He was kind and courteous to everyone in his courtroom, although if a lawyer came late, he would feel Judge DeFino’s wrath, which didn’t last long and was soon forgiven. There was absolutely no meanness or cruelty no matter how ugly the case. That is not to say that every case could be tried as a waiver or non-jury trial before Judge DeFino. Many times I made jury demands in his room and won acquittals in cases where I know the Judge would have found my client guilty. Judge DeFino was a man who fixed problems, he did not cause them. And He fixed them with that South Philly Italian practicality that can only be appreciated by those who understand it. Judge De Fino, did not tolerate disrespect and you saw very little of it in his court room. Most importantly, he was courteous to the lawyers who appeared before him. He understood that for the private lawyers, they had a living to make. Time truly is money for us and so he wasn’t one to keep them sitting in his courtroom, waiting to try a case that might never go on. He also helped the lawyers, both prosecution and defense work through the problems that always arise, not in a way to give one side an advantage over the other but rather to ensure a fair trial to the defendant. He was compassionate as well in his sentencing policies. That is not to say that in the appropriate case a defendant would not deserve and receive significant prison time. But on the other hand, Judge De Fino never punished a defendant for exercising his constitutional right to a jury trial by meting out a stiffer sentence. He wasn’t about warehousing human beings. Absolutely no one could escape the passionate aura that this big man brought to his work and his courtroom.
Off the Bench, Judge DeFino was a gregarious, raconteur often seen holding or smoking one of his long favorite cigars! He always had an ear for a great joke, to which he would react with an high pitched laugh. I admit that I must have told him hundreds of jokes over forty years, none of which can be repeated here. He enjoyed spending summers with his family and his many grand children at the shore. He also loved eating in Italian restaurants in South Philly, especially his son’s restaurant. Even after he retired from the bench, his passion for the law kept him prowling the floors of the Criminal Justice Center as an adviser for the District Attorney’s Office, where he supervised and assisted young District Attorneys with their cases. The law was his love and his passion and he just couldn’t let it go even until the very end. I am truly honored to have known and befriended this great man. What a tremendous tribute and legacy to be able to bring smiles to the faces of all who knew Judge DeFino, at the mere mention of his name!