Alfonso J. Zirpolo, Federal Judge

In 1974, Donald Dale Jackson wrote a book called Judges and devoted an entire chapter to our subject, which he entitled “Judge Simpatico,”  subtilted “Aggressive compassion in a San Francisco federal court.” In a series of interviews with Zirpoli and the attorneys and prosecutors that faced him across the bench, the author sought to define his judicial philosophy and style and to assess his impact on the American system of justice.

An early interview with Zirpoli was conducted in his chambers on the 17th floor of the Federal Building. Jackson described the photos on the wall: Earl Warren, Harry Truman, former Supreme Court Justice Tom Clark, JFK, “and a distinguished-looking Zirpoli ancestor who was a stagecoach driver in Italy.” 

Later in the series of interviews, Judge Zirpoli outlined his concept of “one-on-one justice”: to let every defendant have his say, to ask probing questions, to establish a rapport so that the process and outcome have meaning for the convicted or the absolved. Jackson quotes Zirpoli as saying, “Letting the job become routine is the biggest curse that can befall a judge. […] If it becomes a habit, it’s like the country priest that Piero Calamandrei wrote about, who becomes accustomed to saying Mass.” Zirpoli would quote Calamandrei on several occasions. Now Piero Calamandrei is not a household word in American legal circles. He was a distinguished Florentine professor of civil and constitutional law, a member of the center-left Partito d’Azione, and founder of the political and cultural review Il Ponte.

The photos in his chambers and the quotes from Calamandrei indicate three of Alfonso J. Zirpoli’s lifelong concerns: progressive politics, faith in justice, and strong ties to Italy and, by extension, to Italian America.

Alfonso Joseph Zirpoli
Alfonso Joseph Zirpoli

A Commitment to the Italian Community

Alfonso J. Zirpoli, Il Cenacolo’s third president, was born on April 12, 1905, in Denver, Colorado. His mother, Stella Graziani, was born in the Tuscan town of Lucca. His father, Vincenzo, was born in Potenza in the southern region of Basilicata and grew up in Rome. The two met in the Eternal City. Stella was visiting from Connecticut, where her family was engaged in factory work. They married and moved to Denver, where Stella had a cousin. Vincenzo had been in the Italian cavalry, and his first job in Colorado was as a bronco buster in a stockyard. In 1904, he was hired as secretary to the Italian consul. According to the census of 1910, there were 15,000 Italian-born nationals in the state, mostly in the mining industry, and the Italians there were involved in labor unrest and were the objects of intense animosity, including lynchings. It must have been a relief to Vincenzo when, in 1918, his boss, Oreste Da Vella, was named consul general of Italy in San Francisco and brought him along as cancelliere. The family included Stella, Alfonso, and his younger brother Armando, born in 1907. Vincenzo Zirpoli would hold his post at the consulate until early 1940, when he prematurely retired, due to a premonition that Italy and his adopted land would soon be at war.

Alfonso Zirpoli, in a number of 1982-83 interviews, published by the Oral History Project of the Bancroft Library at UC Berkeley, remembered the full-fledged Italian community that he encountered at age 13 in North Beach: the restaurants, the dramatic societies, the two daily newspapers, the ubiquitous use of the Italian language. Walking down Columbus Avenue, he overheard a heated dispute between two Italians in their native tongue. One obviously convinced the other, because the defeated party finally intoned, “You goddamma righta!” Another linguistic anecdote that he recounted was when he overheard his father talk to the Genoese elevator operator at the Bank of Italy building on Montgomery and Clay Streets, where the Italian consulate was also located. Vincenzo spoke to the man in his native dialect. Alfonso’s reaction, having been bred in the standard national language, was “Do you mean to tell me that this man is an Italian?”

Alfonso attended Washington Grammar School in North Beach. He would later say that “When you graduated from that school, you either ended up in San Quentin or you were employed by the Bank of Italy.” Both he and his brother were lucky to choose the latter path. The two siblings attended Lowell High School, still the premier public academy in the city, Armando going directly into banking and retiring in 1971 as an executive vice president of Bank of America. Alfonso, before entering UC Berkeley, did a stint as personal messenger boy to A.P. Giannini, a post he garnered through rubbing elbows with him in the up-and-down elevator at Montgomery and Clay. At Berkeley, he was president of the Italian club, Il Circolo Italiano.

After a law degree from Boalt Hall, Alfonso Zirpoli entered private practice in San Francisco in 1928, in an office that he sublet from Julian Pardini and Angelo J. Scampini, fellow Cenacolisti di santa memoria, at 21 Columbus Ave. His clientele was principally Italian, many of them sent over from his father at the consulate, and his stock in trade were powers of attorney, or procure, for settling property and inheritance disputes in the old country, affidavits of maintenance and support, INS documents…in short, all those things that Hispanic attorneys now batten on in the Mission District.

Both because of cultural affinities and professional opportunities, Zirpoli began joining Italian-American organizations in a big way. In 1928, he became a member of the Sons of Italy and of the Societa’ Italiana di Mutua Beneficenza. He was eventually elected grand venerable of the Sons of Italy in California. Along the way, Zirpoli would join and become president of the Italian-American Chamber of Commerce, the America-Italy Society and, of course, Il Cenacolo. In 1931, he was a founder of the Columbus Civic Club, a onetime powerful Italian-American political forum that endorsed candidates and ballot issues.

Because of his dark good looks and his eloquence, Zirpoli was a popular speaker at community events. On the evening of Saturday, June 6, 1936, he was the official speaker in English at the inauguration of the Italian Athletic Club building, just a couple of doors from us. (That same year, again perhaps because of his dark good looks and his eloquence, he was married to Giselda Campagnoli, sister of the dearly departed Fred Campagnoli, another ex-president of Il Cenacolo.) Nearly fifty years later, on October 16, 1983, Alfonso was called upon to give an address at the 125th anniversary celebration of the above-mentioned Italian Mutual Benevolent Society. He started out by saying, “…I have been a member for the past fifty-five years. Not being Genoese or Piedmontese, I will never know why I was accorded the privilege of membership.” Knowing the organization, I would have wondered the same thing myself.

During the dark days of World War Two, as Assistant US Attorney for Northern California, Alfonso J. Zirpoli argued internment cases against suspected dangerous enemy nationals before the Enemy Alien Control Board in San Francisco. (Good thing his father had retired from the Italian consulate, because his successor as cancelliere, Carmelo Ilacqua, was sent away to Fort Missoula, Montana, for the duration.) According to Zirpoli’s testimony forty years later, the Justice Department acted as a moderating influence against the exaggerated claims and xenophobic prejudices of the FBI, naval intelligence and Lieutenant General John L. DeWitt, head of the Western Defense Command.

After Mussolini was deposed in July 1943, Zirpoli recorded an appeal to the Italian people to withdraw from the war, an appeal broadcasted from Algiers and London. In part, he said, “I take this opportunity to assure my many relatives in Rome and the people of Italy that America is not fighting against the Italian people as a nation, but against the Fascist regime that has joined hands with Nazi Germany in an unholy and disastrous war that the people of Italy neither sought nor wanted.” Amen to that!

After the war, Alfonso Zirpoli maintained an active interest in the welfare and progress of his ancestral land. He joined in a community-based letter-writing campaign to urge relatives in Italy to oppose the communists in the parliamentary elections of April 1948. (The communists, with their socialist allies, ended up winning 31% of the votes.) In a series of speeches and letters to local newpapers, conserved in the archives if Il Cenacolo, Zirpoli strenuously argued the Italian claim to the Free Territory of Trieste, permanently assigned to Italy in 1954.
Zirpoli ‘s ties to Italy were also refreshed by frequent family vacations to Il Bel Paese, accompanied by his wife and their two daughters, Sandra and Jane.

Politics and the Law

So far, we have concentrated on Alfonso Zirpoli’s strong links to Italy and his active involvement and leadership in the local Italian-American community. In a way, these features parallel those of other presidents of Il Cenacolo, most notably our first president Armando Pedrini and later Sal Reina.

Though ubiquitous and obviously respected and valued within that community, what distinguished Zirpoli from the bulk of his Italian-American contemporaries were his politics. In the Bancroft Library interviews, he stated that the local Italians were predominantly property owners, which meant that they were predominantly Republican in politics and that they were shielded from some of the worst effects of the Depression (which, when you think about it, would thereby all the more so keep them in the Republican camp).

In contrast, Alfonso J. Zirpoli was a liberals’ liberal, a man who unswervingly championed progressive causes and candidates throughout his public life. On the bench, he was what conservatives would call an activist judge, and today he would certainly be in the cross hairs of the Right.

His first political memory was an 11-year-old’s enthusiastic support for Woodrow Wilson in the election of 1916. His activities on behalf of Democratic candidates began with his campaigning for Alfred E. Smith in 1928. From then on, he never looked back. Zirpoli campaigned for FDR in 1932 and, as state president of the Young Democrats, he was a Roosevelt delegate at the party’s 1936 national convention. In both of Adlai Stevenson’s runs for office, he was the candidate’s Northern California chairperson. He also co-chaired the citywide Kennedy campaign in 1960. It must be said, however, that along the way Zirpoli found it in his heart to actively support two Republican mayors, Angelo Rossi and George Christopher, but they were moderates, and in San Francisco the office of mayor is an officially nonpartisan post. From 1957 until his appointment as a federal judge in 1961, Zirpoli served on the Board of Supervisors.

Curiously for us sitting in this room about 45 years later, one of his last speeches to the Board was an appeal to his fellow councilmen against the Planning Commission’s proposal to develop part of the Presidio for residential housing once the Army declared it surplus land. Zirpoli intoned: “Those who want to dismember the Presidio form a small and irresponsible minority.”

Before 1961, Zirpoli’s professional career had alternated between private practice and government service. Through the personal intervention of A.P. Giannini, he was appointed Assistant DA for San Francisco in March 1932. However, he held that position only until August of the following year, when, with a Democrat now in the White House, Alfonso J. Zirpoli was named Assistant US Attorney for the Northern District of California. By the time he reentered private practice in 1944, he had risen to chief of the Civil Division.

As a federal prosecutor, one of his most famous cases was one involving George (“Baby Face”) Nelson, in which “The Zirp,” as local gossip columnist Dick Nolan used to call him, actually went undercover. The idea was to contact one of Nelson’s associates, a certain Joseph Raymond (“Fatso”) Negri, through the latter’s Italian-speaking mother. A wiretap was put on her phone. Alfonso assumed the alias of Tony Damico. As he would later recount, “We had an FBI agent in an abandoned service station and I got my brother-in-law, who was then in high school, to be excused for a week from school so he could sit there at the phone because of his knowledge of Italian.” The boy listening in was Fred Campagnoli.

In September 1961, with another Democratic administration in Washington, Alfonso J. Zirpoli was named to the US District Court for the Northern District of California. As Donald Dale Jackson wryly put it, the appointment as a federal judge was “the fruition of a career of diligent toil in the party vineyards.” In 1975, he was accorded “senior” status with a reduced case load, and he completely retired in 1990, five years before his death at age 90 on July 10, 1995.

While on the bench, Alfonso J. Zirpoli made judicial history. By 1970, he was featured on the front page of the Wall Street Journal in an article on judicial activism called “Forging New Law,” which included a not unbecoming portrait sketch of Zirpoli’s handsome face and the comment that he was “a judge sent over from Central Casting.”
In 1980, the American Lawyer magazine named him jurist of the year for his defense of First Amendment press and free-speech guarantees.

Of Zirpoli’s many rulings as a federal judge, some stand out as exemplary of his uncompromising protection of individual rights and of his farsightedness. For example, that the burning of a draft card could not be used by the government as grounds for reclassification, or that the Post Office could not withhold the delivery of mail that it considered “communist propaganda,” rulings that made it all the way up to the Supreme Court, where they were upheld. Three of his 1970 decisions were widely reported outside the legal journals: that a New York Times reporter testifying before a San Francisco grand jury investigating the Black Panthers could not be forced to reveal his sources, that in order to be a conscientious objector an individual was not required to have a religiously-based objection to all wars, that Black Muslims in California prisons be granted all the rights and privileges of adherents of other faiths, including access to chaplains paid by the state. In 1974, Zirpoli issued an injunction against the SFPD’s policy of stopping young black men for questioning, simply because they fit a broad profile of the so-called Zebra killer. Note that this was way before the term “racial profiling” had even been coined.

Judge Zirpoli naturally raised the ire of Gov. Ronald Reagan and Pres. Richard Nixon, just as he certainly warmed the hearts of war resisters and the ACLU. His own view of the thrust of his rulings was that they stemmed from a basically conservative stance that opposes the power of government to violate the rights of individual citizens. And he extended this philosophy to the realm of economic rights. Zirpoli was a firm beleiver in free enterprise. In one case, he upheld the merger of the Crocker-Anglo Bank with Citizens National Bank against a government anti-trust action. In another case, he ruled against the Sierra Club, which had filed a suit to halt logging operations in a wilderness area of Northern California.
Throughout it all, Alfonso Zirpoli gained the respect of even his most fearsome court opponents. They acknowledged his work ethic (the long hours he put in from 8:30 in the morning until far into the night, with a break for dinner and a long walk), his extensive preparation for cases, his attentiveness to deliberations, his tact in delivering admonitions, his ability to hammer out compromises in chambers acceptable to both parties. In the end, Judge Zirpoli had heeded Piero Calamandrei’s warning not to allow his job to become a mere routine.

Alfonso J. Zirpoli and Il Cenacolo

The curriculum outlined above clearly makes Alfonso J. Zirpoli our club’s most illustrious president. (I should add “to date.”) We don’t know exactly when Alfonso joined Il Cenacolo. It must have been early on, given his flurry of club-joining after he entered the legal practice in 1928. In our archives, we have a group photo of a Christmas dinner on December 18, 1939, with both Alfonso and his father Vincenzo seated among the guests at table. It was held in our suite at the Fairmont Hotel. Back in the early ‘90s, Adolph Capurro visited the retired judge to see of he still had any papers relating to his years as president. Along with what documentation he had, Zirpoli handed over a sliver-plated martini shaker inscribed with the name of the club. It had been regularly used back in the prewar Fairmont days. Zirpoli’s comment was, “We knew how to live back then!”

Alfonso Zirpoli’s tenure as third president of Il Cenacolo lasted for two and a half years, from mid 1949 to the end of 1951. They were eventful years for our club, as documented in the typewritten minutes held in our archives, minutes that begin with the general meeting of May 17, 1949, the last of Guido J. Musto‘s administration. We didn’t have a fixed meeting place at the time. Regular lucheons were held on Tuesdays instead of Thursdays, and they shifted around town from the St. Julian Restaurant to the Fior d’Italia to Del Vecchio’s, but the majority were held at private dining rooms in the St. Francis Hotel. The speaker list was indeed impressive. Besides the consul generals who were arriving and leaving, guest speakers included the mayor of Rome, the commanding general of the Italian Air Force, the Italian Minister for Foreign Commerce, and the Hon. James D. Zellerbach, chief of the Special Mission to Italy of the Economic Cooperation Administration. The topics were strictly of Italian interest, and the foreign guests spoke in their native language. The annual Christmas dinner, without women, was held at the Bohemian Club. Under Zirpoli’s leadership, Il Cenacolo was legally incorporated on June 30, 1950. By the end of that year, it had a respectable roster of 89 members. Alfonso J. Zirpoli had served Il Cenacolo well, with the same conscientiousness and seriousness of purpose that he devoted to his other endeavors.

As a parting note, I would like to point out that Zirpoli’s presidential papers hold a mystery. On June 12, 1951, he wrote Salvatore Rebecchini, the mayor of Rome who had recently visited San Francisco, in order to request a half cubic meter of Roman soil, preferably from the Coliseum. The earth would be enclosed in a marble casing and used in a ceremony for the initiation of new Cenacolisti. (I kid you not!) The Roman authorities complied with this request, and on September 11, 1951, 750 kilos of soil from the Capitoline Hill sailed from Naples on broad the President Johnson headed for San Francisco. The dirt arrived sometime in November, and the club paid a drayage company $51.05 to haul it to the Musto Sons & Keenan Co. marble works. Whatever happened to this 1,650 pounds of Roman soil is anybody’s guess.


© 2024 Il Cenacolo, Talk by Andrew M. Canepa  April 28, 2005

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