TOGETHER, THEY FOUND avenues to get what they wanted. For the past couple of decades, Vince Fumo and Dick Sprague seem to have had a particularly close relationship with the State Supreme Court.
Fumo had sway over the court in two ways. As a high-powered member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, he oversaw the court’s budget. He also knew some of the justices extremely well, especially Stephen Zappala, who performed the marriage of Fumo and his second wife Jane in 1989. Fumo was also buddies with Justice Ralph Cappy. A court administrator once filed suit against Cappy (along with Zappala and Justice Russell Nigro), claiming he was demoted after failing to appoint Fumo acolytes to various positions. A judge dismissed the case, saying there was no evidence that’s why he was demoted.
Then there’s Nigro. Through the ’70s and ’80s, he ran a South Philly law office, mostly personal-injury work. Nigro and Fumo were friends, and Nigro would occasionally say, Fumo once claimed, “You know, Vincent, someday I’d like to be a judge.”
Music to the maker of men. It took a great deal of maneuvering — specifically, a war with outgoing governor Dick Thornburgh and incoming governor Bob Casey over five vacancies on Common Pleas Court — but Fumo eventually got his guy, Russell Nigro, to the Common Pleas bench.
And in 1995, Nigro won election to the State Supreme Court.
Sprague held great judicial power in his own right. Back in the summer of 1993, the State Supreme Court took the unusual step of ordering a Chester County judge “to immediately hear” Sprague’s claim for a fault divorce. His then-wife’s attorney, Al Momjian, criticized the ruling at the time, and he’s still perplexed. “Why the Supreme Court rushed it through,” he says, “didn’t sound right then. Or now.”
It’s also not lost on Center City power brokers that the Supreme Court passed on hearing that Sprague v. Inquirer lawsuit. The suit went through many appeals and judges, and in 1995, the Inquirer tried to appeal to the state’s highest court an award to Sprague of $24 million. But the justices decided not to hear the case, and rather than risk taking it to the U.S. Supreme Court, the Inquirer settled for an undisclosed — though certainly enormous — sum.
As for Fumo, he has bragged for years about his influence over courts. For example, back in the early ’80s, according to Frank DiCicco, Fumo told him that he had three State Supreme Court justices lined up to overturn Chief Justice Robert Nix’s control of the Philadelphia traffic court, where DiCicco was an administrator. (Fumo’s spokesman says he wasn’t trying to change who controlled the court — he was just trying to save DiCicco’s job.) Another thing is that Russell Nigro and Vince Fumo had a bitter falling-out, as Nigro carefully puts it now, “over the way I wanted to do my job, and him thinking otherwise.”
It didn’t take long, in fact, for both Fumo and Sprague to get upset with Nigro after he was sworn in as a Supreme Court justice in 1996. Though Fumo denies this, a witness to a Fumo-Sprague exchange remembers both men railing about Nigro because he had refused something they wanted done.
“He doesn’t know his roots,” Fumo complained bitterly. “He doesn’t know where he came from.”
Fumo and Sprague believed they could make sure Nigro lost his seat on the court, even though a vote on retention wouldn’t come up for almost a decade. “Mark my words,” Sprague said, according to the witness. “Nine years from now, we will do it.”