Wheels of Justice
Photography by Keith Berr
The Honorable Ralph Cappy, ’68, understands the importance of the journey. The journey can be challenging, entertaining, even liberating, but the journey is always instructive. And, many times, the journey can lead you in directions never imagined or thought possible.
Cappy experienced this time and again as he traveled throughout North America on his BMW K 1200 T touring bike. Together with his friends, he criss-crossed the United States and Canada — from the unspoiled beauty of Canada’s Prince Edward Island, to the expansive Great Plains, to the majestic vistas of the Pacific Northwest. Yet, no matter how glorious the destination, it was always the journey that defined the experience. The unexpected detours. The unanticipated experiences. The unforgettable people. This is what created, shaped, and defined his journeys — journeys inevitably unlike any he could ever have imagined or anticipated. And so he readily understands that life, too, often has a funny way of leading you on a journey far different from the one you had planned.
When Ralph Cappy retired from his position as Chief Justice of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court late last year, he completed an historic phase of his own life’s journey — a journey he, too, at one time, could never have imagined and could never have predicted.
Cappy never imagined he would be a judge.
The year was 1978. Cappy, then Allegheny County chief public defender, was about to leave public office to enter private practice. That same year, three judicial vacancies emerged on Allegheny County’s Court of Common Pleas, to be filled via a merit selection process.
Cappy decided to apply, never dreaming he would survive the selection process. After all, he reasoned, he was just 34 years old. No Pennsylvania Governor in memory had appointed a trial judge as young as 34 in the past. Rather, Cappy saw the application process as a type of litmus test. Although, having served as a public defender for 10 years, he was part of a relatively new institution. As he looked to join the private bar himself, he wanted to gauge its sentiments. Did lawyers in private practice see this new public defense work as taking work away from them? And, if so, would there be resistance to him?
Cappy found that not only had the private bar accepted his public role, but that he had also survived layer after layer of scrutiny and investigation—ultimately becoming one of three newly appointed trial judges to the Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas.
The man who had never envisioned himself a judge went on to serve the commonwealth’s highest court as Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice for 18 years and as Chief Justice for five of those years. From trial judge to Chief Justice, his judicial tenure spanned nearly three decades, spawning a legacy of leadership and a body of opinions regularly cited across the United States.
As a young boy growing up in the Brookline section of Pittsburgh, Cappy never imagined such a life journey. Typical of many young men who came of age in the ’50s, Ralph Cappy had a passion for cars and motorcycles—a passion that would remain a constant throughout his life. His mother had dreams of him becoming a doctor. Toward that end, he worked hard in school, assimilating his parents’ work ethic and channeling his energies into the classroom.
Once an undergraduate at the University of Pittsburgh, Cappy’s medical school aspirations ultimately gave way to a new aspiration— the law.
His fellow classmates often looked to him when, according to Cappy, “they got into scrapes.” Cappy soon found himself the students’ chief mediator, negotiating settlements with Chancellor Litchfield on behalf of his friends and classmates. His nascent skills as mediator and consensus-builder would eventually develop into some of his most distinctive judicial traits.
“It was during those sessions with Chancellor Litchfield,” remembers Cappy, “that I first realized what I wanted to do with my life.” Those experiences ultimately led him to Pitt Law where “I found the legal process—determining and applying a set of rules to a complicated problem—an intriguing mental exercise” and he fell in love with the intellectual and analytical discipline of the law.
His life’s work had now begun. But the journey, he would discover, would continually surprise him.
Two years after his initial judicial appointment, Cappy won the race for his seat on the Court of Common Pleas of Allegheny County. During his 12-year tenure as a trial judge, Cappy served in the Family, Criminal and Civil divisions, and was later appointed by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court to administrative judge of the Civil Division.
By this time, Justice Cappy had become known as a man of integrity and as a fair and pragmatic judge. He had long ago ascribed to his father’s motto of always “being the very best that you can be” and steadfastly tried to live by that creed, both personally and professionally. On the bench, Cappy’s creed manifested itself in always striving for judicial excellence as he worked to create a fair and impartial court based on the rule of law.
And so, when he was elected Justice in 1989 to the nation’s oldest court—the Pennsylvania Supreme Court—he brought with him those same guiding principles— deeply held convictions about judicial independence, a passionate commitment to the rule of law, and a profound sense of professional decorum and collegiality.
But what he found was a Court in turmoil—one that was increasingly divided and contentious.
“I suppose I was naive enough at the time,” says Cappy, “to think that there would be a collegiality within the state’s highest court where certain rules of decorum would be practiced and where the members would work to reach a majority consensus. But I found a different tradition in place when I first arrived.”
He found a deeply entrenched political tradition, some fifty years in the making. Throughout his 18 years as a justice of the Supreme Court, Cappy worked with other like-minded colleagues to depoliticize the Court and bring collegiality to the bench.
But, it wasn’t until he became Chief Justice, that Cappy was able to make the most significant strides in helping the Court heal the divide, restoring the Court’s focus, and restoring its national credibility. Cappy, through his considerable leadership skills, created a climate of collegiality and consensus-building. He remained tenaciously committed to judicial independence, judicial excellence, and adherence to the rule of law. And, as a result, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, under Cappy’s leadership, created a clear, coherent majority-based body of decisions.
“In the last five years, this Court has faithfully adhered to the rule of law, no matter how politically charged the case,” says Cappy. “It has been tremendously satisfying to lead this Court to render a body of decisions focused in accordance with the rule of law. And this would never have occurred without the support of and collegiality among the justices.”
Indeed, Cappy not only restored collegiality within the Court, he restored the Court’s credibility among the nation’s courts, legal scholars and Congress. The Court’s decisions over the past five years have been routinely read and cited across the country, bringing Cappy recognition as a leader in establishing a body of Pennsylvania Constitutional law. One of the Court’s seminal cases from that period, Commonwealth v. Edmunds, is looked upon as a judicial and legal template for state constitutional cases.
His tenure did see its share of conflict and controversy, most notably in the censure of Justice Rolf Larsen and in his more recent stance on judicial pay raises. But it was his numerous accomplishments as Chief Justice that defined his legacy. In addition to restoring collegiality within the Court and restoring the Court’s credibility nationwide, he created a new family court program, improved court security, modernized the Pennsylvania courts, and worked to increase the number of women and minorities in the state judiciary.
Yet, there is one other accomplishment Cappy proudly points to, in part, because everyone had said it could never be done. In fact, the idea was considered so patently impossible that it had been referred to in Harrisburg as “Cappy’s Folly.”
Cappy persevered and achieved what had never been accomplished in the state’s judicial history. He helped realize the creation of the United Judicial Center, the new home of the Pennsylvania judiciary on Harrisburg’s Capitol Hill, scheduled for completion in the spring of 2009. Harrisburg conventional wisdom had dismissed the idea as “folly,” for the idea had been discussed intermittently for nearly a century, and yet had never materialized.
“The Pennsylvania judiciary has never had a central administrative home in the state capitol. Currently, administration of the courts is scattered throughout the state. While the Supreme Court will continue to sit in the state’s designated three cities, this new center— the result of the dedication and support of my colleagues—will provide much-needed centralization of the Commonwealth’s Courts.”
In a career as accomplished as Cappy’s, the awards and honors inevitably followed. Among his many honors, Justice Cappy received the Pennsylvania Bar Association Bar Medal, one of only nine awarded in its 113-year history; the Pennsylvania Bar Association Judicial Award; the Distinguished Laureate Alumni Award from the University of Pittsburgh; a Distinguished Alumnus Award from the University of Pittsburgh School of Law. He was named Pennsylvania State Police Man of the Year and Italian Heritage Foundation Man of the Year.
And the awards continue to come. Most recently, he was named a University of Pittsburgh Distinguished Alumni Fellow. He received the Harry Carrico Award from the National Center for State Courts, an award given to a Chief Justice “who has inspired, sponsored, promoted or led innovations of national significance in the field of judicial administration.” He also recently received the Susan B. Anthony Award in recognition of his significant contributions to the advancement of women in the law.
Pennsylvania Governor Edward Rendell summarized Justice Cappy’s contributions by saying, “He was, in my judgment, a great public servant in his role as Chief Justice. And he was an extraordinarily effective Chief Justice. ... The Court became effective, efficient, pragmatic and had the ability to get things done in an extraordinarily quick and competent fashion. ... I think he will be remembered as a great Chief Justice. “And I also know that he is a great guy.”
And, that, perhaps, is Cappy’s other abiding legacy. He is known as simply a “great guy.” Simple, gentle, and unassuming, his lack of pretension is a thread that has been woven throughout the fabric of his professional and personal lives.
You can see it in the way in which he drafted his opinions. With a writing style that was purposefully clear and noncomplicated, Justice Cappy believed in drafting opinions that laymen and lawyers alike could read and understand.
So, too, a simple, unpretentious manner characterized his personal relationships. Always affable and genuine, Cappy is the Pennsylvania Chief Justice who would readily turn to you and say, “Please call me Ralph.” He is the man, who as public defender, played softball with his fellow lawyers on a team called “The Defendants.” And he is the man, who as Supreme Court Justice, continued to tour the country on his motorcycle.
Indeed, his passion for motorcycles and the open road has never waned. His travels have included two-week excursions, logging 1,000 miles a day on his bike. Traversing the countryside, he has traveled to all of the 48 contiguous states—a personal goal. From quaint New England coastal towns, to the wind-swept plains of the Midwest, to the majestic splendor of the Canadian Rockies, Cappy has traveled to some of North America’s most iconic destinations.
While the destinations were often extraordinary, he loved the journey just as much. For Cappy, the journey was somehow liberating. In part, because of the feeling of freedom it brings—just the elements and the endless stretch of road ahead. In part, because of the feel of the bike as it lifts him up hills, around curves, and through the North American highways. In part, because of the people he met in the towns and villages along the way. Where he could just be Ralph Cappy. Where people accepted him at face value. “Where people didn’t feel they had to laugh at my jokes,” quips Cappy.
Looking back at both the miles he has traveled and the professional contributions he has made, he simply says, “It’s the people I remember. It has been an honor to come to know and work with such dedicated, hardworking colleagues on the bench and in the court system. Whether in my travels or in the workplace, it is the people I have met and worked with who have made all that I have done worthwhile.”
Looking ahead, Cappy looks forward to his new role at Buchanan Ingersoll Rooney, P .C. After stepping down from the bench this past fall, Cappy joined the firm as a shareholder. He is a member of the firm’s Litigation Section, and will also be a significant resource in the firm’s mentoring program.
Cappy also looks forward to continuing his board leadership roles. He will continue to serve as chairperson of the University of Pittsburgh Board of Trustees, as vice chairperson of the Board of Directors of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center Health System, and on the University of Pittsburgh School of Law Board of Visitors.
And he is looking forward to road trips on his trusted bike—perhaps for another two-week cross-country excursion.
But, wherever and whatever the road ahead, he knows the journey will not be exactly what he had planned. For it has always been the unexpected detours, the unanticipated experiences, and the unforgettable people that have defined his journey — and a life lived — thus far.
Ralph Cappy understands the importance of the journey — a journey that, for him, is far from over.