I am sure that none of the wonderful protagonists of the 242 interviews published so far will be offended if I write that this one you are about to read is a bit more particular than the others. The prestige of the guest that We the Italians has the honor to host in this interview is absolute, and his exceptionality is unanimously recognized: his success and leadership honors the entire Italian American community, and together Italy and the United States are unified by the esteem and thanks they owe to such an enlightened figure.
I must thank my friend, the exceptional Gilda Rorro Baldassari, who was kind and generous enough to allow me to get in touch with Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito, who accepted with great courtesy to answer some of my questions. It was my choice, given the delicate institutional moment, not to ask questions regarding the recent developments in the composition of the Supreme Court, let alone the presidential elections that will be held the day after the publication of this interview, for which I am infinitely grateful to Justice Samuel Alito, a perfect example of Italian American excellence. While maintaining our willingness to remain neutral in the elections, it seems to us that this is really the best way to honor the greatness of American democracy and the meritorious contribution that the Italian American community has given it and continues to give it.
Your honor, in which area of Italy are your roots, and what is the history of your family's emigration to America?
My father’s family came from a little town south of Reggio Calabria called Saline Joniche. As was the case with many immigrants, my paternal grandfather came to the United States first to find a job and a place for the family to live, and my paternal grandmother then came with my father, who was about six months old at the time, in 1914.
My mother’s family was from Palazzo San Gervasio in Basilicata. My mother was the youngest of the six children in the family, and she was born in the United States, while her oldest siblings were born in Italy. They came to the United States earlier than my father’s family. The story I heard was that the family decided to emigrate because the crops on their farm were destroyed one year in a hail storm.
Both families settled in Trenton, New Jersey, which was a manufacturing city at the time. My mother’s father worked in a steel mill, and my father’s father was a laborer in a variety of jobs.
One of the common traits of the millions of Italian Americans is the family: it seems to be very important, as it is for us Italians who live in Italy. Has it been and is it the same for you?
Yes, definitely. My parents always stressed the importance of family, and our nuclear family - my parents, my sister, and I - were very close. We also spent a lot of time with my aunts on both sides of the family. We had a family dinner at noon every Sunday and always saw the family on holidays.
My parents were devoted to my sister and me and did everything they could to give us a good start in life.
I continue to believe that family is extremely important, and my wife and I cherish our relationship with our own children.
Italy and the United States are two very different countries from many points of view, yet in their history there are clear mutual influences. The United States would not be what they are without the Italian contribution, nor Italy would be what it is without the American one. Have you had the opportunity to verify this influence during the success of your career?
Yes, this is true in many ways, both large and small. Italian Americans have made important contributions to their new country, and the influence of Italian culture is everywhere to be seen. To take just one example, the design of the Supreme Court building where I work is based on a Roman model, and I am quite sure that the wonderful marble work was done by Italian American masons.
You are correct that Italy and the United States differ in many ways, but we share core values, especially a devotion to democracy and the protection of human rights. When I was in college, I wrote my thesis on the Italian Constitutional Court, and I like to think that the United States Constitution and our Supreme Court had some influence when Italy’s new Constitution was drafted in 1948.
The Italian American community started from the emigrants who arrived in America in very difficult conditions, showing how exceptional the American environment is, which gives a chance to those who work hard and commit themselves with humility and commitment. Today, Italian Americans are successful in all the different sectors of the American life. You are probably the most important testimonial of this excellent union between Italian DNA and the American meritocratic environment. What is the most Italian trait of your character?
That’s a hard question, but I will say it is the value I attach to family and also to the past, including the people, places, and things that have been important to me.
Is there an aspect of the Italian way of life that you would copy and paste into the United States, if you could? And vice versa?
For the U.S., everything connected with food and dining. For Italy, less red tape.
What in your opinion are the main differences between Italy and the United States from the point of view of the role of the judiciary?
I think there has been some convergence in recent decades, but there is a fundamental difference between the role of a judge in a civil law system of the type that prevails on the continent of Europe and the role of a judge in the adversarial system used in English-speaking countries. This is most evident in criminal cases, where, in civil law countries, a member of the judiciary is involved in the prosecutorial process. In the U.S. and other English-speaking countries, judges play a strictly neutral role in such cases.
Until after World War II, in Italy and virtually everywhere else in Europe, judges were forbidden to review the constitutionality of laws adopted by legislative bodies, while we have been doing that in the United States for more than 200 years. After World War II, however, constitutional review was introduced in Europe. Italy and Germany took the lead, but now, this practice has spread throughout the continent. Indeed, because Italy is part of the European Union and the Council of Europe and is thus subject to decisions of the EU court and the European Court of Human Rights, judges may be seen as playing an even bigger role than in the U.S.
The last question concerns Christopher Columbus. One hundred years ago he was the target of the Ku Klux Klan because he represented religious diversity and the positive contribution of immigrants to the growth of the United States. Today those who consider these two factors important inexplicably attack him. What can be done to get him out of the role of scapegoat into which he has been unjustly dragged?
I am very upset about the movement to take down all Columbus statues and memorials and to get rid of Columbus Day. This movement sees Columbus as a symbol of colonialism and the oppression of Native Americans, but this misunderstands why these statues and memorials were originally put up and what they continue to mean for Italian Americans.
To understand this, a little bit of history is in order. Long before Italian immigrants came in great numbers to the United States, Columbus was already a powerful symbol. At the time of the founding of the United States and for many years thereafter, Columbus was a symbol of boldness, an enterprising spirit, and freedom from antiquated and deadening restrictions. That is why our nation’s capital is in the District of Columbia. It’s why many cities in the United States are named Columbus. It’s why famous American authors like Washington Irving and Walt Whitman wrote about Columbus. Columbus was seen as a hero because his discovery brought about European settlement in the New World, which was celebrated. Paradoxically, this very accomplishment is why many today see him as a villain.
What those who attack Columbus statues and other memorials do not seem to understand is that the great majority of these statues and memorials were put up by Italian Americans because of what Columbus symbolized to them. And to them, he symbolized something quite different. He symbolized their experience in coming to America and their claim to belong here just like everyone else. When Italian immigrants arrived here, they were often scorned. Many thought they were hopelessly backward and could never fit in. Looking for a way to say that they did belong, Italian Americans, exercising a bit of furbezza, simply latched onto the Columbus symbol that the general population already knew and valued. These immigrants, like my grandparents, were overwhelmingly poor and had little formal education. I venture to say that they did not know a lot about the details of Columbus’s actions in the New World. What they knew was that he was Italian; he took a great chance in leaving the Old World behind; he suffered hardships during his voyage, but ultimately he “discovered” America. And knowing these bare facts, they said to themselves: “That’s our story too. We took a big chance, left everything we knew behind, had a difficult time at first in our new home, but now we belong - because after all, our countryman discovered this place.”
As a young boy in 1959, I was present when the Italian American community of Trenton, New Jersey, proudly erected a statue of Columbus in the little park in the heart of their community, and I am quite certain that what I have outlined is roughly what they thought. The statue was a memorial to their community and what it had accomplished, and it was therefore very painful to me to see the statue defaced with red paint and eventually hauled away by the city a few months ago. The neighborhood in which the statue was located is now home to newer immigrants, and the removal of the statue effectively effaced any trace of the old Italian American community. It is as if the Italian immigrants never existed and their history - what they endured and accomplished - counts for nothing. That is a great insult to the memory of our ancestors, who had nothing to do with any of the things for which Columbus is now reviled.
As for what can be done to arrest the trend to wipe the country clean of any reference to Columbus, Italian Americans and others can explain what Columbus statues and memorials really meant to the people responsible for their erection and what they mean to Italian Americans today. And Italian Americans and others can speak up and stand up against what is going on.
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