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Area federal judge dies

Anthony A. Alaimo helped shape area

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POSTED: December 31, 2009 12:13 p.m.
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Judge Anthony Alaimo

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SAVANNAH - Senior U.S. District Judge Anthony A. Alaimo, whose rulings in the 1970s enforced voting rights for blacks and reformed state prisons, died Wednesday after nearly four decades on the bench. He was 89.

Michele Kim, Alaimo's law clerk, confirmed to The Associated Press that Alaimo died Wednesday morning at a hospital in Brunswick, near the judge's home on Sea Island. She said she did not know what caused his death.

Alaimo was nominated for the federal bench by President Richard Nixon and was confirmed in December 1971. He served as the district's chief judge from 1976 until 1990 before assuming senior judge status in 1991.

In the 1970s, Alaimo ruled on several cases in favor of black voters who had been disenfranchised in county elections and ordered reforms at the infamous Georgia State Prison in Reidsville that forced desegregation of inmates and improved security.

Robert Cullen, an Atlanta civil rights attorney who argued the Reidsville prison case and several voting rights cases before Alaimo, called the judge "a ruthless criminal sentencer, but impeccably fair."

"In Augusta, he was reviled when I first moved there in 1974, but in later years he'd become something of a folk hero in the white and the black communities," Cullen said. "He was an extraordinary jurist who did extraordinary things."

Born in Sicily, Alaimo immigrated to the U.S. with his parents in 1922. He piloted B-26 bombers during World War II and was the only member of his crew to survive when their plane was shot down in 1943.

The German army held Alaimo as a prisoner of war for about two years before he managed to escape.

"I think that informed his decisions of what it means to be incarcerated," Cullen said. "He had been there and wouldn't tolerate human beings being treated without basic dignity and human rights."

Alaimo shined shoes and cut hair to earn money for college and later received his law degree from Emory University in 1948. He practiced law in Atlanta for nearly a decade before moving to coastal Brunswick, 60 miles south of Savannah, in 1957.

As a senior judge, Alaimo continued to preside over civil and criminal trials until his death. Last year, he ordered the U.S. Agriculture Department to compensate a Georgia farmer whose cows died after being poisoned by fertilizer made from processed sewer sludge - a practice the government had encouraged for 30 years.

Alaimo ruled that government-endorsed data indicating safe levels of toxic heavy metals in the free sludge was "unreliable, incomplete, and in some cases, fudged."

Alaimo presided over his last hearing Dec. 21, spending a full day on the bench, said Kim, the judge's law clerk.

Alaimo's wife of 62 years, Jeanne Alaimo, died last January. Their son, Philip Alaimo, lives in of Savannah.

Donnie Dixon, a Savannah lawyer and former U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Georgia, said Alaimo's passion for the law was palpable even in his handling of courtroom formalities - such as giving instructions to trial juries before sending them to begin deliberations.

"It's not a real interesting thing, as a rule, but I have seen Judge Alaimo deliver jury charges with such energy and conviction that the jurors were on the edge of their seats," Dixon said. "Nothing was ever really a formality with Judge Alaimo."


 

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