Obituary: William F. Cercone / Judge left lasting mark in courts he served

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William F. Cercone, who rose to prominence as a prosecutor in the anti-Communist purges of the 1950s before serving 45 years as a Common Pleas and Superior Court judge, died Sunday night of pneumonia. He was 91.

  
William F. Cercone

"There is a void in the legal community across this commonwealth with his passing," said Superior Court Judge Joan Orie Melvin.

Before retiring from the bench two years ago, Mr. Cercone left a lasting mark on Superior Court. A Stowe native and longtime Ross resident, he was president of the appellate court in 1980 when he persuaded the state Legislature to increase the number of judges from seven to 15, the court's present size.

But history will perhaps best remember him as the prosecutor who put Pittsburgh's top Communist behind bars.

In a trial that attracted international attention in 1952, Mr. Cercone, as an assistant district attorney, prosecuted Steve Nelson for sedition.

Nelson, a charismatic figure who fought in the Spanish Civil War, came to Pittsburgh after World War II to take over the regional branch of the American Communist Party.

Mr. Cercone prepared for the trial in the library of his uncle and mentor, Michael Musmanno, who would soon become a state Supreme Court justice. In the anti-Soviet zeitgeist of post-war America, Musmanno had assembled a large collection of material about Marx, Lenin and the American Communist Party.

At the conclusion of a six-month trial, Mr. Cercone presented a two-day closing argument that persuaded the jury to convict Nelson, who was sentenced to 20 years in prison.

The U.S. Supreme Court ultimately overturned the conviction, ruling that the state had usurped federal authority in trying the case.

But Mr. Cercone's standing in the community would remain forever elevated.

In 1956, then-Gov. George Leader appointed him to a vacancy in Allegheny County Common Pleas Court. A year later, Mr. Cercone won a 10-year term as top vote-getter among judges. And in the 1967 election, he was the top vote-getter again.

So it came as no surprise in 1968 when Mr. Cercone won election to Superior Court. The Duquesne University Law School graduate achieved the status of senior judge upon turning 70 in 1983.

He could easily have retired in 1988, after he and his wife, Amelia, won a $15 million Wild Card Lotto jackpot.

But Mr. Cercone continued to hear cases until just two years ago, when he reached the mandatory retirement age of 90.

Even then, "he was not happy to go off the bench," said Superior Court Judge Patrick Tamilia.

During his long judicial career, Mr. Cercone tempered his moral crusades with uncommon compassion.

Soon after becoming a Common Pleas judge, he ordered a grand jury investigation into pornographic magazine sales, referring to the publications as "moral pollution."

The investigation led to a tightening of state laws regulating obscene materials.

But the same judge who once warned that he would give every drug dealer the maximum sentence also called the bench "the loneliest place in the world" after sending two robbers to prison.

"He was compassionate to all parties that came before the court," Melvin said. "It didn't matter if you were a criminal defendant or what socioeconomic background you came from."

As a boy, he played baseball and football at Stowe High School, where he was a 148-pound fullback with the nickname "Five-Yard Cercone."

He later joked, "I was never sure whether that meant a five-yard gain or a five-yard loss."

After obtaining his law degree in 1941, Mr. Cercone entered the Navy, holding the rank of lieutenant on an amphibious assault ship.

He arrived in Nagasaki, Japan, soon after the atomic bomb was dropped on the city and World War II drew to a close.

Whether it was the chilling sight of the devastation in Japan, his Roman Catholic upbringing, or an altogether different influence, something inspired Mr. Cercone to adopt and espouse a set of principles.

In a speech to the Catholic War Veterans in the late 1950s, he lamented the materialism of Americans, saying, "We must be more concerned with building the spiritual and moral fiber of our country in every phase of living."

In 1977, Mr. Cercone and former Pittsburgh City Councilman Philip Baskin traveled to the Soviet Union to meet with Jewish "refuseniks," calling attention to the repressive emigration policies of the Communist regime.

Connected in life and death, Mr. Baskin died Sunday, too.

Mr. Cercone is survived by his wife, Amelia; two sons, William Cercone Jr. of McCandless and David Cercone of Pine; four daughters, Marylin Schaffer of Hartford, Conn., Patricia Klein of Philadelphia, Diana Cercone of Philadelphia, and Michele Cercone of Long Beach, Calif; two stepsons, John Biedrzycki Jr. of Robinson and Paul Biedrzycki; and nine grandchildren.

He is also survived by nephew David Cercone, a U.S. District Court judge.

Viewing will take place tomorrow and Thursday, from 2 to 4 and 7 to 9 p.m. at Devlin Funeral Home, 806 Perry Highway, Ross.

The funeral will begin at 9 a.m. Friday at the funeral home, to be followed by a funeral Mass at 10 a.m. at St. Sebastian Roman Catholic Church, 311 Siebert Road, Ross.

Interment will be at Allegheny County Memorial Park, McCandless.


Jeffrey Cohan can be reached at jcohan@post-gazette.com or 412-263-3573.


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