Judge Seamus McCaffery: Have Gavel, Will Travel
This former cop doesn’t wait for criminals to come to his courtroom. He seeks them out
Published in 2004 Pennsylvania Super Lawyers magazine
on May 31, 2004
Updated on August 6, 2015
Seamus McCaffery doesn’t need the license plate that proclaims JUDGE on his custom Harley, an unmistakable yellow Heritage Softail Classic, to identify him as Philadelphia’s most popular jurist. His reputation, which precedes the vroom of his bike, was enhanced when he volunteered to preside in Nuisance Night Court in South Philly and was burnished nationally as “the judge who brought law and order to the NFL” when he presided over “Eagles Court” at the old Veterans Stadium.
First elected to the bench in 1993, McCaffery, a former Marine and the only excop in Philadelphia’s judiciary, retains his cop’s mindset well-honed from 20 years with the Philadelphia PD, much of it as a homicide detective.“As a cop, you’re the first one on the scene of a crime.You see the 75-year-old black guy sitting on his stoop, crying, because some punks kicked his door in and took everything he owned.
“It’s all very clear. He’s the victim.You go out and find the thugs who committed the crime.Yet once the case gets into the courtroom, the victim continues to be victimized. It’s a morass. It was my experience that too many judges just didn’t understand life on the street. I’d go before judges who couldn’t tell the difference between Sweet ’N Low and cocaine.”
Which inspired the young cop to focus his ambition on becoming a judge, to bringing some common sense — some street sense — to the courtroom.
“I never wanted to practice law,” he says, ensconced in the spacious new office on Walnut Street until his real new office on the 17th floor is finished.“I knew I wanted to make a difference as a judge. I’m from the streets. I know what victims go through.”
McCaffery had to persevere in pursuit of his dream.“In my Marine’s mentality, I knew that in order to become a judge, I’d have to be a lawyer first.And in order to become a lawyer, I’d have to go to law school and pass the bar. And in order to go to law school, I had to go to college first.”
So the young detective spent 5 1/2 years pursuing his bachelor of arts degree at LaSalle. He’d investigate homicides by day and go to school at night, despite having a young family at home, despite his obligations in the Marine and then the Air Force Reserves, and despite the overtime that comes with being a detective.Then as a “special admission,” he spent four years at Temple Law.
As a 39-year-old freshly minted member of the bar, he quickly found that his services were not exactly in demand. But a retired FBI agent named George J. Lavin, who had a practice in the same building McCaffery’s new offices are in now, liked not only the fact that the rookie attorney had investigative experience but also that he was politically active. Lavin hired him.
At Lavin, Coleman, Finarelli & Gray, McCaffery quickly proved his worth.He started an environmental law department that soon took on so many cases that Lavin had to hire additional lawyers to handle the caseload.After 4 1/2 years, though, Seamus McCaffery left to fulfill his ambition.
In 1993, he became the first former cop to ascend to the bench in Philadelphia.He established a reputation as being firm but fair. And he wanted to handle the toughest cases.
“Johnny Bag-of-Donuts may think he’s tough, but I’m the intimidator,” he explains. “When you deal with thugs and punks, the first thing you learn is they have no respect for authority. It’s a badge of honor to serve time in jail. So if they’re guilty, I’m happy to accommodate.”
No one will ever accuse this judge, a Democrat, a member of the National Rifle Association, of being soft on crime. One of the bumper stickers he hands out attests to his convictions: Soft Judges Make Hardened Criminals.
One day, he explains, he was approached by Councilman Jim Kenney about “quality of life” crimes that the police, overburdened by felonies, tended to ignore, crimes that were driving the middle class to the suburbs. Under the assumption that the same people responsible for petty crimes also were doing the felonies, he volunteered to bring justice into the neighborhoods.Within months, the first Nuisance Night Court was established at the old police building at the corner of 11th and Wharton streets in South Philly.
From the very first Friday-night session, the courtroom was packed — not only with the families of the arrested but with neighborhood residents fed up with their antics. On his busiest night, Judge McCaffery, who is not paid for his extracurricular efforts, adjudicated more than 160 cases in 7 1/2 hours, finally leaving his courtroom at 5:30 in the morning.
All of which brought him “a ton of notoriety.” In 1998, after a nationally televised NFL game between the Eagles and the 49ers when rabid fans engaged in some 60 fistfights, and one joker from Delran, N.J., fired a flare gun from one side of the stands to another, Judge McCaffery was approached to “bring the ‘Seamus Show’ to the Vet.”
“If you build me a courtroom,” he told Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie and team president Joe Banner, “I’ll be there.”Within weeks,“Eagles Court” made its debut. It was a swift success. Instant justice was meted out to flagrant fans who didn’t think twice about urinating in public or sloshing beer on fellow fans.
McCaffery recounts some of the memorable cases from Eagles Court, which was always busiest when the Eagles played a rival from the tough NFC East Conference — the Cowboys, the Redskins or the Giants.
“There was this guy who called himself ‘Birdman,’ who got all dressed up in black Spandex, a green cape and helmet, and an eagle’s snout and was running around the stands like the Caped Crusader.And he’s standing in front of a father and son and the father says,‘Hey, buddy, I can’t see the game.’ Birdman replies,‘Hey, fuck you.’ So the father gets up and drops him.There’s a fight and this construction guy who’s working as a security guard gets his knee wrecked.
“So Birdman is in my court looking at me. I say,‘How old are you, Birdman?’
“‘Thirty-two,’ he replies.
“‘Where do you live?’ I ask.
“‘New Jersey,’ he says.
“‘Does your mother know you’re running around in front of 65,000 people dressed in black Spandex?’
“We got Birdman to pay the kid’s medical bills.”
Another night, the cops brought in a guy who had obviously been in a fight.“The stench of alcohol was unmistakable,” McCaffery recalls.“‘Your Honor,’” he says when I asked for his side of the story, ‘I’ve never been to an NFL game in my life.On the two-hour bus ride down from Scranton, we’re all drinking beer. I got sloshed. I got into a fight. I got beaten up, and I got locked up. Now I’m here in front of you, and the bus already went back to Scranton.’
“Rather than add insult to injury, I found him not guilty.Then I gave him bus fare home.”
Then there was the case of the college student who had tried to sneak into the Vet and was brought before McCaffery on a trespassing charge.
Asked to enter a plea, he responded, “Stupidity.”
“Aggravated stupidity or simple stupidity?” McCaffery shot back.
McCaffery’s reputation grew. Booed at first, his brand of justice quickly earned him cheers. He became known as “the judge who brought law and order to the NFL.”He made the front pages of the Inquirer, the New York Times, and the centerfold of ESPN magazine. He appeared on Dateline, 60 Minutes, Inside Edition.
Eagles Court is now on hiatus, due to the improved decorum exhibited by fans at Lincoln Financial Field, but McCaffery says he is open to presiding again in the future should there be a need.
When he ran for Superior Court last year, he tailored his message to veterans, to organized labor, to law enforcement, to bikers, to members of the NRA. Even to the tattooed, who were impressed “just to see my ink,” he says. For a Philadelphia Democrat, he played extremely well in the rest of the state, garnering more than 1.3 million votes to lead all candidates.
Despite the notoriety and offers to make tons of money in private practice, “it has always been about righting injustice,” he says. Now 53, he should have a lot of years to impart some street sensibilities into the appellate chambers.