September 25October 2, 1997
He's the first cop ever to preside over a Philadelphia courtroom. Could Seamus McCaffery be the city's next mayor?
By Frank Lewis
"Who's looking for a job?"
Judge Seamus McCaffery peers over the black-framed reading glasses perched on his nose and scans the benches of his courtroom. The men and women filling them glance at each other, confused; they are probation violators and not unfamiliar with the court system, but this is something new.
"C'mon," he urges, "who's looking for a job?"
Three or four men raise their hands tentatively. The Home Depot in King of Prussia is hiring, McCaffery tells them. He was there yesterday, saw the "help wanted" sign himself. Good money.
"When you get out of here today," he says, "get up there and put your names in. Assuming I don't put you in jail."
Back to business. It's standing room only for welfare fraud day, and 70-odd convicted welfare cheats have been invited to explain why they have failed to make monthly payments to the state on the money they stole, as they agreed to do when sentenced to probation. Each awaits his or her personalized version of what the judge himself calls The Seamus Showa few minutes of paternal warnings in some cases, withering sarcasm in others, each doled out in heaping portions intended to make one message abundantly clear: the buzz-cut, barrel-chested man in the robe is not to be messed with.
The probation officers have seen the show before. Sometimes they play supporting roles.
"This is Ms. Compton's fifth violation, Your Honor," a probation officer says, laying the annoyance on thick, as the next defendant comes forward. "She is very, very, very uncooperative, Your Honor. She feels this money doesn't have to be paid."
McCaffery stares at Ms. Compton over his glasses; now he's annoyed. "What do you want to do, officer?" he asks without shifting his gaze.
"Whatever, Your Honor," the p.o. responds, shaking her head and looking away. She's playing her role through to the end, though she surely knows what's coming next.
"OK, ma'am," McCaffery says, "I'm sentencing you to jail. Three to six months. And when you get out, you still owe me money."
Murmurs drift through the audience as Ms. Compton is led away.
Another defendant elicits an altogether different response. The frail old woman, carrying a girl no older than 2, explains that she'd like her monthly payments lowered from $25 to $15. She's having a hard time making ends meet, raising the five children her drug-addicted daughter abandoned. McCaffery tells her she is a remarkable person, and not only grants her request but reduces the payment to $10 just to be safe. He orders the defense attorney to help the woman begin the process of tracking down the children's fathers for support.
"These men aren't going to bring babies into this world and not take care of them," he growls. Many in the audience cheer.
"What are you clapping for?" he snaps. "I may jack you up to pay for her."
Philadelphia Municipal Court Judge Seamus Patrick McCaffery is one of those men who can appear imposing despite unimpressive height. His arms are thick, his shoulders extremely broad, and even at 47, his chest still can cast a shadow over his gut. Clad in denim and leather, and seated astride his beloved red Harley Davidson, he could pass for a genuine biker, albiet a clean-cut one.
And don't think he doesn't know it. McCaffery is acutely aware of the images he projects, the impressions he leaves. Not that he's actinghis various and somewhat contradictory personae are effective primarily because each seems so real.
So when he starts sounding like a man who sees himself as mayor, his words, however measured, are worth a listen.
He is an Irish immigrant (he was born in Belfast, came here at age 3) who became a copthat's about the only stereotype that will stick. He spent more than half his 20 years on the force attending college part-time, earning bachelor's, master's and law degrees. Four years after leaving law enforcement for a law practice, he became the first former cop to preside over a Philadelphia courtroom.
He is an ex-Marine who is a sucker for genuine remorse, and downright parental in the face of a defendant's vows to change. Those who can convince him of their willingness to try harder often leave his courtroom better off than they arrived.
But he gleefully humiliates defendantsand sometimes lawyers and even copswho fail to show the proper respect for the process. For them he plays the educated thug who clubbed the real judge over the head in his chambers, stole his robe and sneaked into court to dispense his own brand of justice.
"I use what I consider, what I hope is intimidation," he admits. "A lot of criminals, I've found, they're like predators. If they detect weakness, they don't take you seriously. So I give them The Seamus Showthe no-neck, knuckle-dragging, tough-guy kind of thing."
If only they could see the bulletin board in his office, with the snapshot of his new puppy, an adorable flop-eared black lab.
Around the city, community activists are eating it up. His work with the night court, the year-old experiment in swift justice for petty criminals, has made him something of a hero among the town-watch set; his periodic disruptions of crimes in progress, glowingly covered in the daily and community papers, haven't hurt, either.
An unabashed Philadelphia boosterand self-described "ultra-conservative on law and order issues" who nonetheless believes passionately in social programsMcCaffery has fallen in with the "quality of life" crowd, that small but vocal local government contingent that pleads the case of the forgotten middle class. Few things infuriate McCaffery more than someone whose actions contribute to someone else's decision to pack up and move out of Philly, and he hands out sentences accordingly.
But he admits to feeling frustrated at times. Common Pleas Court judges overrule him on appeal too often, in his estimation, giving probation to small-time offenders he'd sentenced to jail. And he's already tried to move up once; his bid earlier this year for Commonwealth Court ended at the primary, at least in part because the vast majority of Philadelphia voters had better things to do that day.
So it almost goes without saying that he doesn't intend to remain in Municipal Court; in fact, he admits he'll be running for "something" in 1999the year Philadelphia elects its next mayor.
McCaffery acknowledges that he has received "calls" about a mayoral run. That doesn't mean he's interested in the job, he says. But he's not exactly ruling it out, either. He'll tell you he loves being a judge, then talk for half an hour about what kind of leader the next mayor ought to be, what priorities he or she should have.
Maybe it's ambition talking, or maybe it's just ego, but the mayor he describes sounds a lot like him.
Had night court been in effect when Seamus McCaffery was a teenager, he might very well have faced a judge himself.
"Street-corner punk, fist fighter, always in trouble," he recalls of his youth in Germantown, which then was roughly equal parts Irish, Italian and black, and uniformly poor. "An out-and-out hellraiser, no doubt about it. It was the gang war days. It wasn't uncommon for us to be fighting. There were always fights, we were always in trouble."
But his borderline-criminal escapades eventually would lead to a defining moment in his life.
"I guess I got to a point where I was becoming uncontrollable. I was becoming the neighborhood tough guythug. And I'll never forget it, my father grabbed me by the throat one day and held me against the wall, and he said, 'Boy, if I thought you'd grow up to be a punk like this, I never would have left Ireland.' And it was like, Whoa! I was embarrassing the family. My father was outraged that any child of his could be turning into this kind of a punk.
"He knew I wanted to join the Marines, so he said, 'I'll make a deal with you. If you don't get in trouble this year in school'I was always suspended'I will sign for you to go into the Marine Corps.' So I did it, he signed, I went to Parris Island [in 1968] and they gave me discipline, and they gave me pride. The rest is history."
The Marine Corps changed his life almost immediately. "There's no doubt in my mind that had it not been for the Marine Corps, I would not have achieved the stuff I've achieved," he says. "It just says to you, if you can do this, you can do anything.
"There's a big thing in the Marines, 'Once more for the Corps.' They'd make you do 50 push-ups. And you'd just barely get that 50th, and I mean you're dying, your arms are shaking, guys are crying because they can't do it. And they'd walk over to you and go, 'Give me one more for the Corps.' And you'd do it."
Boot camp also brought out the sharp mind he'd been hiding behind a cocky demeanor for so long. He was one of only four from his platoon of more than 80 to be selected for technical training, in aviation electronics. The rest were sent to Vietnam.
After two years of active duty he became a reservist, married a nice Irish girl from his neighborhood and joined the Philadelphia Police Department. His first assignment was a patrol in the 39th District. This was followed by a stint in viceduring which he grew a beard and stopped cutting his hair, and sported an earringthen other district assignments until his promotion to detective in 1978.
The Homicide Division turned out to be his longest and most successful assignment. "He was top-notch," says Inspector Jerry Kane, a homicide captain in the early 1980s. "Tenacious, resourceful, very intelligent. He used his head. There wasn't a lot of wasted motion with Seamus McCaffery."
Working primarily on his own, McCaffery wrapped up a nearly year-old and seemingly hopeless case, the rape and murder of an Olney girl. Ex-gang members with whom he'd rumbled as a teen provided information that led him to the killer, who later was convicted.
"It was one of the best investigations I ever saw," says Kane. "It was an example of his tenacity."
After six and a half years in Homicide McCaffery moved to Major Crimes and was promoted to sergeant. Still, he became increasingly frustrated with what he considered the slow pace of his advancement, and ended his law enforcement career in 1989 to move closer to his next goal, becoming a judge.
"Now wait a minute," McCaffery says, grinning and raising his hand to silence the attorney in mid-excuse. "You'd better sit down for this."
He reads from the letter the attorney has submitted, a doctor's explanation as to why the attorney's client is not in court today. "'I fear it would be detrimental to his health to be involved in legal confrontation,'" the judge recites in a mockingly proper tone.
"Detrimental to his health," he repeats as the lawyer squirms. "Can you believe this? Aren't you insulted that this prima donna sent this in?" The lawyer cautiously allows that perhaps he is, just a little, but McCaffery cuts him off. "You probably dictated it to him." Everyone but the attorney laughs.
"You tell your client that absent a toe tag, he better be here," he adds. And once agains he mutters, "Detrimental to his health."
But in the end, he gives the lawyer what he wantsanother 90 days.
In the 1970s, McCaffery began attending college at night, earning bachelor's and master's degrees at La Salle.
"There were a lot of friends of mine that didn't want to take that path, and they're security guards now," he says. "They were content pushing the squad car, working shift work. A lot of them used to mock me [for going to school]. 'College doesn't make you a better cop.' But now here I am sitting here with all this education as a judge, and a lot of those same people say, 'Seamus, you were lucky.' Well, it wasn't luck, it was a lot of hard work.
"It was long, it was tedious, it cost me my first marriage because I was never home." He and his wife separated in the early '80s, but he remained involved in their three sons' lives.
Law school was a logical, if unusual, next step, he says. Through Lise Rapaport, the former assistant district attorney who would become his wife in 1990, McCaffery met other lawyers and judges, and often thought that he could do what they did. But the primary motivation was his experiences with the judicial system as a police officer.
"For years I would sit out there as a cop and I would listen to these lawyers misrepresent the facts, defense attorneys doing stuff that was just absolutely incredible, unethical, immoral, and watch as judges did nothing," he recalls; he still sounds disgusted. "That was the impetus for me to go to law school, and for me to be a judge. There was never a cop on the bench [in Philadelphia], there has never been anybody with my background on the bench. My first day in law school I told Dean [Carl] Singley, I'm here strictly to be a judge. And I'm the first one from my law school class to be a judge."
Upon retiring from the police department, he joined Lavin Coleman Finarelli and Gray, where he focused on environmental cases, of all things. (The firm still handles clients he brought in, he says.) In 1991, he rather bluntly informed Democratic Party Chairman Bob Brady that he intended to run for judge.
"He was arrogant," says Brady, who now considers McCaffery a close friend. "I said, 'Would you mind waiting? There's a lot of other people we've been talking to before you.' He didn't take my advice."
McCaffery jumped into the Municipal Court race anyway, filing in both the Democrat and Republican primaries, and winning in the latter (though he always was, and still is, a Democrat). Brady recalls seeing him later at campaign functions; McCaffery, he says, kept his distance.
But when he lost in the general election, he returned to Brady's office. He was still "a little arrogant," Brady says, but this time he accepted the chairman's advice, and agreed to handle small-time legal matters for constituents at no charge in order to raise his profile among the ward leaders.
"Christ, he almost lived here," Brady says. "He was personable, he was charmingeverybody who met him loved himand he was a workaholic."
In 1993 McCaffery got his reward. Municipal Court Judge Martin Bashoff abandoned his re-election for a part-time, senior judge post, and the party ran the determined former cop in his place. He won easily, as Democrats usually do in this town, even without the endorsement of the Philadelphia Bar Association. (He'd refused to be interviewed, he says, because most lawyers live in the suburbs and therefore have no right to be influencing city elections.)
There was this letter, the kid explains, and it said he didn't have to complete the 150 hours of community service to which Judge McCaffery had sentenced him earlier this year for scrawling on walls, because he has to work on Saturdays, the only day the graffiti clean-up crew goes out. He can't produce this letter, nor can he recall who had signed it, but he and his mother swear that's what it said.
"You look like an intelligent young man," McCaffery says, leaning forward on the bench. "Let me ask you something. This job you have on Saturdayswhat happens if you don't show up?"
"I guess I'd lose the job, sir."
"And what happens when I sentence you to community service, and you don't show up?"
"I go to jail?"
"Very good! And that's where you're going15 to 30 days. Sheriff, get him out of here."
The kid is nearly out the door when McCaffery calls him back, after realizing he's only 17 and can't be jailed for a graffiti offense. The most the judge can do is order him to Artscape, another anti-graffiti effort; he clearly is disappointed. But he tells the clerk to schedule the kid for another appearance immediately after his 18th birthday, which is just a few months away.
"If you do not accomplish all 150 hours, if you mess up by one minute, you are mine, and you are going to jail."
Last year, Councilman Jim Kenney had this idea. The city would establish a night court, the first in its history, for the speedy adjudication of underage drinkers, curfew violators, prostitutes and all sorts of other non-violent offenders who typically don't draw the attention of cops running from one serious crime to the next.
He called his friend Seamus McCaffery, who jumped at the chance to bring some order to city neighborhoods. He rounded up volunteers among the clerks and court reporters, and night court was launched in South Philly's Fourth Police District in May 1996. Today, with about a dozen judges and even more clerks and such involved, night court operates most weekends around the city. Community organizations and town watch groups constantly request sessions.
"The most refreshing thing that we've had was one night on South Street," where night court has been a weekly feature since mid-summer, he says. "There was a grandmother, an older black woman, she said, 'Your Honor, I want to apologize to you, but this boy's mother is on the street. But I've been raising him since he was a child and he knows better. If I thought I could right now I'd whip him right here.' And guess what she had in her handa big black belt, the kind my parents used to have. I said, 'Ma'am, you do what you have to do to this young man,' and the next thing you know she took that belt and started whacking this young kid's behind, right in the courtroom. I said 'Ma'am, don't do it in the courtroom.' But I saw in that woman a real fire; it wasn't her fault that kid was out late. And I found that kid not guilty, because I thought she was going to give him the punishment he deserved.
"And a lot of these kids, I think, that little experience they have in our courtrooms, especially at nightI think it has a real impact on their lives. I don't think most of them ever want to come back before a judge. And it could be the one thing that stops them from doing the real bad crimes. I'm renowned in the courts for reaming ass. I will chew you upside down and sideways."
Cops, he says, just love that.
Night court is the "biggest morale booster in a long time for a lot of these cops," he says. "They feel that now [they've] got Seamus McCaffery out there, and they're locking [troublemakers] up right off the streets. That gives the cops the sense that hey, we finally have the kind of support we need where we need it, when we need it."
"I had a cop in my court [recently], a big guy from South Street. He came up and said, 'Judge, I wouldn't lock people up until you came along. You're really doing a great thing for us.'"
McCaffery does not seem to be acquainted with self-doubt. When he knows he's rightwhich apparently is a good deal of the time, at least publiclyhe neither hesitates nor equivocates, nor keeps his mouth shut. Like Councilman Kenney, he prefers venting over seething.
"Jimmy and I are Philadelphia freaks, for lack of a better word," he explains. "Jim's one of these people who is proactive. He wants to get out there and address the problems, go at them full speed, head on, and deal with these issues that are causing people to leave [the city].
"The sad part is that we're in a city administration where more people than not make up excuses why we can't do things. Every time you turn around, try to come up with something that's innovative, something positive to try to make a change people telling you why you can't do it.
"They spend an inordinate amount of time and energy figuring out why we can't do things. And that's what bothers me."
It's comments like these that make one wonder whether winter will pass without an announcement from McCaffery that he intends to be the next mayor of Philadelphia. He's clearly considering it, and he says others are as well.
"I get phone calls now about [running for] mayor, I get phone calls about running for this or that, everybody wants me to run for different things. [They say] 'Seamus, you're the hottest thing going right now. Everybody else out there is old news.'
"I guess it's [because] I want so much for the city to succeed, and there's not too many people around here who would run as long and as hard as I would."
But either McCaffery is exaggerating the demand for his candidacy, or he's the only one not keeping a tight lid on the idea. Various sources likely to know if such plans were afootincluding Brady and South Philly Ward Leader Buddy Cianfranisay there have been no formal or casual conversations about McCaffery entering the already crowded field. (State Rep. Dwight Evans and Philadelphia Housing Authority executive director John White are in. They may be joined by any or all of the following: Council President John Street, Council members Happy Fernandez and Angel Ortiz, District Attorney Lynne Abraham, City Controller Jonathan Saidel and State Sen. Vincent Fumo.)
"It's a little early. Right now everything's just conjecture," says Cianfrani, adding, "The people that have to resign their jobs [to run, as McCaffery would] have to think twice."
Only Kenney hints, vaguely, that something might be up: "I think [he's] been considered in various circles."
"I've heard [the rumor]," says political consultant Larry Ceisler. "I don't know if it's being generated by him, but I've heard it from a few people."
Ceisler figures McCaffery would be a contender. His ethnicity, Northeast connection (he lives in Bustleton), impeccable law-and-order credentials and military background (he left the Marine Corps in 1985 as a captain and joined the Air Force Reserves, in which he recently was selected for lieutenant colonel) give him several strong bases from which to draw support.
"Here's a guy who has confidence in himself, and sets a goal and goes for it whether anyone else thinks he's qualified or not," he says. "And the fact that [the Democrats] slated him to run for judge with almost no legal experience suggests he can be pretty persuasive.
"And he has character," Ceisler adds. "He's not vanilla." In the possibly crowded Democratic field, anything that sets a candidate apart will help.
"I don't know if he'd make a strong candidate[politics is] not my thing," notes Inspector Kane. "But he'd be an excellent mayor. If he ever became a candidate for mayor, I'd retire and go work for him."
"He's far more intelligent than he lets on," says Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 5 President Richard Costello, who first met McCaffery in 1973 when Costello and another cop, from McCaffery's district, shared a hospital room as they recovered from bullet wounds. "He's cultivated this image with the motorcycle and the leather jacket, but he's a very intelligent person."
Not to mention a man of tremendous integrity, in Costello's view. In the mid-'80s, McCaffery stormed into FOP offices one night and demanded that Costello, then the recording secretary, help him sue the FOP over its policy forbidding members from taking polygraph tests (the union maintains that they are unreliable). McCaffery was incensed that the entire department had been tarnished by some corruption scandal, and he "wanted to prove a point," he says.
"I was proud of his strategy," Costello recalls, "I just disagreed with his tactics."
McCaffery has definite ideas about what kind of person the next mayor should be. Maybe it's only a coincidence that the judge fits his own criteria perfectly.
"Eddie Rendell's done a phenomenal job with stabilizing the business community as much as he could, he's done a great job financially for Philadelphia, and he's done a great job for Center City," McCaffery says. "And a lot of people say, 'Yeah, but at the expense of the neighborhoods'and there's some truth to that what he's been doing, but the emphasis needs to be placed on our neighborhoods out to the counties.
"Would I like to be the one who stabilizes [the neighborhoods]? Am I the great motivator? I don't know. I don't know."
So has he been approached by anyone in a position to make things happenlike his good friend Brady, or Kenney's former boss Fumo?
"I really can't talk about that," he says. "Put it this way: there's been a significant amount of individuals who have asked me if I'd be interested in the neighborhoods, there's political people who have asked me about it as well. But again, it's too early to really get into it.
"As somebody said to me, just sit back right now and watch the firefight. So I'm going to sit back and watch assure you, in 1999, I'll be running for something."
This one doesn't stand a chance, and he looks like he knows it.
He stares wide-eyed somewhere in the vicinity of the judge, but not directly at him, as the prosecutor explains that the defendant's recent arrest on a retail theft charge was his third such offense in as many months. The defense attorney offers that the man, perhaps 20 years old, has fallen back into his drug habit since being kicked out of a residential treatment program.
McCaffery wants to know why. The young man admits it was for violating the facility's rule against having sex on the premises.
He prattles on, seemingly unable to stop himself from explaining that he knows he had been given a second chance and blew it, how he's sorry for making such a stupid mistake, how he honest to God wants to clean himself up.
McCaffery stares at him over his glasses, his expression utterly unreadable. The public defender tries to interjectprobably out of concern that his client is digging himself in deeperbut the judge cuts him off.
"Let him go," he orders, "he's doing fine." His tone might be sarcastic, it's hard to tell.
The young man continues, more acknowledgment and remorse. Finally McCaffery stops him, leans forward ominously, then praises the defendant for not making excuses for himself.
"I'm going to make a deal with you," he says. "I'm going to help you out [with placement in another program], but on one condition: You don't tell anybody I'm a nice guy."