'But I am Cinna the poet'

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Tearing a man to pieces on the street is an atrocity. Doing so on a stage is entertainment and, if done really well, art. In politics, apparently, it can be all three.

Russell Nigro, a Pennsylvania Supreme Court justice, was tossed off the bench last week by voters apparently still in full dudgeon over the July pay raise passed in the middle of the night by the state Legislature. The raise applies to legislators, the governor and judges high and low across the commonwealth.

In Justice Nigro's case, voting "no" on the up-down judicial retention was a way to send a message, much as one sends a message by delivering a severed head to someone's office. Sandra Schultz Newman, Justice Nigro's fellow jurist, narrowly survived, possibly because women stood by one of their own, because former Gov. Tom Ridge did radio commercials on her behalf, or because strange magnetic beams from deep space altered their thinking. There is no way to read this except as literature. The text for today is Shakespeare's "Julius Caesar," Act 3, Scene III.

A Roman mob has gone in search of the killers of the emperor. Suspects include the senators Brutus, Cassius and Cinna. Cinna, as it turns out, is a common name, rather the Roman equivalent of Flaherty. They come across a man en route to Caesar's funeral and demand his name.

"Truly, my name is Cinna," he says.

"Tear him to pieces; he's a conspirator," says a citizen.

"I am Cinna the poet, I am Cinna the poet," our victim pleads.

"Tear him for his bad verses," says another citizen.

"I am not Cinna the conspirator," the poet implores.

"It is no matter," says one of the mob. "His name's Cinna; pluck but his name out of his heart, and turn him going."

Justice Nigro has written little poetry and not much startling by way of case law since ascending to the court in 1995. Possibly his biography is the most notable document he has produced. He is a second-generation American, and the first member of his family to complete high school. He worked his way through Rutgers Law School before embarking on a storefront practice in which he did his own typing, stapling and filing.

Being from Philadelphia and possessing actual work skills proved Justice Nigro's springboard to local politics and, some years later, appointment to the bench by then Gov. Bob Casey.

On a court notable for one member, the Hon. Rolf Larsen, accusing another, the Hon. Stephen Zappala Sr., of attempting to run him over at an airport curb side, Justice Nigro limited himself to mere law. That is to say, he did his job -- how well, I am no more qualified to say than the average Pennsylvania voter -- and kept himself clear of undue attention. He was precisely the kind of man Pennsylvanians keep around.

So why did voters turn him going?

There is little sense in analyzing the strategy of Justice Nigro's retention campaign. Aware of voter anger at the Legislature, he ran a spot declaring that he stood up to the Legislature when it was wrong. If voters had become exercised about the weather, Justice Nigro's ads would doubtless have publicized his longstanding opposition to heat and humidity.

This year the atmospherics were the contest and, as such, Justices Nigro and Newman ships in a typhoon. Voters were enraged at the sneering insouciance of the General Assembly leaders who slipped yet another middle-of-the-night pay raise through and then behaved as if a sufficiently long silence on their part would quieten the children.

This worked in Philadelphia, with its citizenry accustomed to high-handed abuse. But in the state's west we expect our muggers to say please and thank you. In its center, where neighbors commonly die a bit when they see someone else succeed, the raise played poorly.

Look at Dauphin County, a place that exists largely on an economy of confiscation. Without state government, Harrisburg would be a cow pasture traversed by an unnavigable river. Instead of being thankful to the Legislature for their phoney-baloney economy, citizens of Dauphin not only voted to eject Justices Nigro and Newman, they also came within 202 votes of throwing out Lawrence F. Clark Jr., a local judge whose only perceptible offense seems to have been that he appeared on the ballot on an electoral bad hair day.

Judge Clark is an inconspicuous man who last made headlines for ordering a ringing cell phone dropped out his courtroom window. In most places this would have made him a hero. Certainly it would not have triggered outrage. Yet citizens of Dauphin, after voting 31,046 to 10,309 against Justice Newman, and 32,104 to 8,898 against Justice Nigro, continued wilding down the ballot until they came close to defenestrating Judge Clark.

The team of Nigro and Newman might have taken a whack for their chief justice's peripheral role in the pay raise, but Judge Clark seems to have fallen victim to the electoral equivalent of feng shui. Voters are so angry they're throwing people around like badly arranged furniture.

Whether this dark comedy will culminate in a wholesale rout, with bodies flung from windows next November, or evaporate with voters feeling a bit silly at their indiscriminate anger, one cannot say. Revolutionary justice is a hard thing to renounce once the hostages have been killed, and in the case of Justice Newman, the voters have left behind a surviving witness.

Justice Nigro will get on with his life, doubtless earning triple his current salary at some Philadelphia law firm, the kind with silver water pitchers, delivered luncheons and secretaries to chase around mahogany desks.

Less employable will be the assorted legislators who helped to author this mess at the behest of House and Senate leaders who assured them voters have, over the decades, been adequately conditioned to bark loudly in rage, snarl slightly, then roll over.

Instead, voters were transformed into a Roman mob, their rage indistinguishable from their spite and their capacity to reason dulled by both. It is well to remember that, after Cinna the Poet is torn to pieces, Cinna the conspirator is never mentioned again. Whether he escaped or died with the other conspirators is open to interpretation. For that drama, as with the farce improvised on Tuesday, we are working without a text.

Dennis Roddy is a Post-Gazette columnist, droddy@post-gazette.com , 412-263-1965.


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