1976- The year that Steve Jobs founded Apple; the year gymnast Nadia Comaneci was awarded a perfect 10 score on her Olympic routine; and the year Judge Frank Battisti would receive the most controversial case of his career. On August 31st, 1976 Robert Anthony Reed III filed a lawsuit against Cleveland Public Schools on the grounds of purposeful discrimination and segregation, thereby denying Reed, and countless other students, their rights founded upon the 14th Amendment. The case cast a spotlight on Judge Battisti; however, he was no stranger to controversy.
Born on October 4th, 1922 in Youngstown, Ohio, Battisti served as a combat engineer during World War II. Upon returning from active duty, he attended Ohio University to study law and soon after attended Harvard Law School. He served as a civil attorney for the U.S. Army before teaching Law at Youngstown State University and opening his own private practice.
In 1961 President John F. Kennedy appointed Battisti as the District Judge of Northern Ohio. Being only 39 years old at the time, this made Battisti the youngest federal judge in the country. In 1969 he would be appointed head judge, and it wasn’t long after this appointment that Battisti earned a reputation for accepting controversial and challenging cases. Some highlights include his decision to deport John Demjanjuk, an Eastern European immigrant suspected of Nazi war crimes, and the acquittal of eight Ohio National Guardsmen who took part in the Kent State Massacre in 1970. These, among other cases, accelerated both Battisti’s regional and national exposure that would only escalate further upon the Reed vs. Rhodes case.
Siding with Reed, Judge Battisti ruled that Cleveland Public Schools were, in fact, guilty of intentional segregation and ruled that Cleveland Public Schools start an integration program. (A process that would last upwards of 20 years or, as some would argue, continue to this day). The ruling was very controversial and resulted in Battisti and his wife, Gloria Karpinski (m. 1963), receiving multiple death threats. Many people close to Battisti testify that it was his deep Catholic faith and respect for civil liberties that aided Battisti’s decisions.
Battisti’s strong resolve earned him several honors throughout the course of his life; most notably, the 1979 Award for Outstanding Trial Judge by the Trial Lawyers Association of America, and in 1974 a plaque awarded by B’nai B’rith for Battisti’s commitment to civil rights.
Frank J Battisti died on October 19th, 1994, and his death received national media coverage. He is still known today as a major civil rights advocate, and his ruling in Reed v. Rhodes has shaped the Cleveland school system as we know it today. While Judge Battisti certainly lived a life full of controversy, his effect on Cleveland history is undeniable. He is buried in Calvary Cemetery in Cleveland, Ohio.
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