Ruggero J. Aldisert, Retired Federal Judge and Pitt Alumnus, Dies

Issue Date: 
January 12, 2015

Judge Ruggero J. Aldisert, retired senior U.S. Circuit Court judge, law professor, World War II veteran, and University of Pittsburgh alumnus and emeritus trustee, died Dec. 28, 2014. He was 95.

He is remembered as a respected and highly influential jurist, scholar, educator, writer, and Marine, as well as an active, dedicated, and honored Pitt alumnus.

Judge Aldisert (known to friends as “Rugi”) was born to an Italian-Catholic family in Carnegie, Pa. He enrolled in the University of Pittsburgh in 1937, and each day took the almost six-mile streetcar ride from his parents’ home to Downtown before transferring to an Oakland-bound trolley. Though he termed himself a “streetcar student,” Aldisert nonetheless asserted himself as a remarkable undergraduate student and active campus leader, serving as a member of the Debating Association and editor-in-chief of The Pitt News. Upon graduating in 1941 with a BA in political science, he was elected to the Phi Beta Kappa society and named the Omicron Delta Kappa Senior of the Year. As with other ODK awardees, his name was carved into the stone walkway between the Cathedral of Learning and the Heinz Chapel. 

Pitt Chancellor Patrick Gallagher said he extended the Pitt community’s “heartfelt condolence to the entire [Aldisert] family” and called Judge Aldisert “one of our truly distinguished emeritus trustees.” 

“The Judge was a major figure in the American judiciary,” Gallagher added. “Although I did not have the pleasure of meeting Judge Aldisert, I understand he loved Pitt, was one of our most influential trustees during his extended tenure on our board, and received most of our high honors.”

Chancellor Emeritus Mark A. Nordenberg said, “Judge Aldisert liked to say that he arrived on the campus of the University of Pittsburgh in the fall of 1937 and never left. In many ways, that was true. Not only did he earn his undergraduate and law degrees here, but he served as either an active or an emeritus trustee for most of his adult life. Even after health issues caused him to move to California, he continued chairing the board of visitors of the law school for many years.”

 “He was very proud of his ties to the University and let everyone know that he was a ‘Pitt person,’” Nordenberg added. “Since he was considered to be a giant of the federal judiciary—a reputation that he earned through his judging, his writing, and his teaching—and the fact that he assigned much of the credit for his successes to the education that he received here was a high compliment and captured the attention of many important people who otherwise did not know much about Pitt.”

 Aldisert enrolled in Pitt’s School of Law, but when Pearl Harbor was bombed on Dec. 7, 1941, he went to enlist in the war effort the very next day. With so many other Americans wanting to join the military, he was told to return in March, which he did, taking a break from his graduate studies to join the United States Marine Corps. In World War II, he served as a battery commander in the Pacific, and later he was appointed by the Pentagon to help plan for invasions in Japan, and achieved the rank of Major.

At the end of the war, Aldisert returned to law school at Pitt where he earned a JD in 1947. He established a successful private practice in Pittsburgh representing businesses and criminal defendants. In 1961, he was elected to serve as a judge on the Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas. Then, in 1968, President Lyndon B. Johnson appointed him to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit. He would eventually become Chief Judge of that court, taking senior status in 1986 when health concerns led him to move to California. He continued to serve, however, sitting with numerous circuit courts around the country, building his influence and legal reputation across the nation.

When he retired last August at the age of 94, Judge Aldisert had established a 46-year tenure in the federal courts. He was known as a practical, strong-minded judge who resisted ideological rulings and whose passion for justice never wavered. He ruled on a number of landmark cases, including writing a stinging dissent in one appeal of the Abscam case. In that case, FBI agents posed as representatives of a nonexistent Arab sheik and bribed several politicians in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Judge Aldisert argued that the FBI had entrapped the accused in an affront to American justice. 

In addition to his judicial work, Judge Aldisert was a dedicated legal educator, serving as a visiting professor and lecturer at a number of prestigious law schools, including the University of Pittsburgh. He also authored multiple textbooks that are now listed as required reading within many law schools and offices. Among his most influential titles are Winning on Appeal: Better Briefs and Oral Arguments; Logic for Lawyers: A Guide to Clear Legal Thinking; and The Judicial Process: Readings, Materials, and Cases. But legalese wasn’t his only subject. In 2005, he published a memoir, Road to the Robes: A Federal Judge Recollects Young Years and Early Times, and recently published a novel, Almost the Truth, which takes place in Italy during World War II. 

Judge Aldisert was a vital member of Pitt’s alumni community. He served as a University trustee from 1968 to 1989, when he was elected an emeritus trustee. He served on a number of Board of Trustees committees, including the Executive, Student Affairs, and Institutional Advancement Committees. 

 “When I joined the Third Circuit 12 years ago, Rugi embraced me and continued to give me incredible practical advice and guidance as a colleague,” said Judge D. Michael Fisher, a Pitt emeritus trustee who currently sits on the Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit. “He was a scholar, an author, and one of the most practical people I have ever known. As a fellow emeritus trustee of the University, we shared a love of Pitt and a love of the law. He was a great man, who accomplished so much.”

In recognition of his extraordinary service to Pitt, Judge Aldisert received several of the University’s highest honors, including its Bicentennial, Trustee, and 225th Anniversary Medallions, and the School of Law’s Distinguished Alumnus Award. He was also honored as a Distinguished Alumni Fellow of the University.

In his private life, Judge Aldisert was a devoted husband and father. He is survived by his wife, Agatha, and children Robert, Lisa, and Gregory. He raised his family in Mt. Lebanon, where he was active within the community, serving as the president of the Order of Italian Sons and Daughters of America for more than a decade. 

A private funeral service will be held in California. The burial and a military service will take place at a later date at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia.