"one of the great romantic judges"

Raymone J. Pettine, federal judge in Rhode Island from 1966 until 1996, died on November 17.

The NYTimes obituary in today's editions cites his landmark rulings from the bench supporting humane prison conditions, civil liberties for individuals, equal rights for women and girls, the separation of church and state, free speech and abortion rights.

At least one of his judgments attracted attention all across the country:

In 1980, he ruled that a gay student had the right to take a male escort to the prom. The student had filed suit after the principal denied his request for the date.

"To rule otherwise would completely subvert free speech by granting other students a `heckler's veto,' " Judge Pettine wrote. "The First Amendment does not tolerate mob rule by unruly schoolchildren."

On this and other issues the jurist was an independent mind, independent above all of his own church.
"He truly was one of the most devout Catholics I have known," said his daughter, Lydia Gillespie. "But he was able to separate his beliefs from the dictates of the Constitution."
Judge Raymond J. Pettine (it was always the full name) was a very big man produced by a very small state. Throughout most of the twenty years I lived in the wonderland called "The State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations" blessed with this good man, his name was regularly broadcast throughout the entire region. To this day, even after almost another two decades away from what were my own Newport and Providence plantings, if I think of the Providence Journal-Bulletin or WPRO the letters or the sound of "Raymond J. Pettine" somehow crowd or shout anything else which might be stored in my memory.

In the early days, his was a voice crying out in the wilderness, just about the only voice. Today Rhode Island is another place, largely because of this man and those he inspired.

One of his colleagues remembers a great jurist with this surprising encomium:

"He was one of the great romantic [my italics] judges," said Burt Neuborne, a New York University law professor who as an American Civil Liberties Union lawyer brought a series of cases before Judge Pettine in the early 1970's.

Mr. Neuborne added that Judge Pettine was among the judges who had a "grand conception" of "what the possibilities of American justice were and what their role was in helping achieve individual liberty and equality."

Pettine was born on America Street on Federal Hill, Providence's "little Italy" in 1912, and it's still a healthy Italian neighborhood today. As judge for the federal district, he lived in a comfortable old yankee mansion on Angell Street, very much the other side of town. Now that's romantic.

Here is more on Pettine's take on religion and the state, this from the Providence Journal November 18 notice:

In 1993, looking back on his years on the bench, Pettine said: "In all God's truth I must say, it is an awesome privilege to be a judge."

But it was a privilege that exacted a price. When Pettine, a practicing Roman Catholic, ruled against the Nativity scene, The Providence Journal-Bulletin printed a full page of letters, overwhelmingly opposing the decision.

"I could never understand why so many Catholic people held the Nativity case against me. And they really did, believe me when I tell you; I got some very, very vicious correspondence. Vicious correspondence."

Feelings grew so tense that Pettine stopped attending his church, St. Sebastian, and went to Mass at the Franciscan chapel on Weybosset Street.

On a personal level, Pettine said he didn't see how a Catholic could support the Nativity display in the first place. "You know, the birth of Christ is something that stands alone, and they just trivialized this in the way they wanted to display it.

"Then, as far as the law is concerned," he said, "I firmly believe this with great conviction: that there has to be a separation between church and state -- that one of the saving graces of this country is the fact that we are tolerant of all religions, and even of those who have no religion [my italics]. And if we start breaking that down, we are going to be in an awful lot of trouble."

Judge Raymond J. Pettine was a liberal, a breed which, if not quite extinct, lives pretty closeted in the new America.