Judge Raymond J. Pettine (1912-2003) is remembered as one of Rhode Island’s most distinguished jurists, especially revered for his commitment to freedom of expression and equal treatment for all, including even those who are despised by the majority.
Judge Pettine was appointed to the United States District Court by President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1966 and became that Court’s Chief Judge in 1971, serving in that capacity until 1982, when he began a tenure as senior judge for more than a decade. His intellect, common sense, and fairness mark his numerous decisions ranging from torts to trademarks, and conspiracy to contracts, but his most famous legacy is his constitutional jurisprudence.
A keen observer of human behavior, Judge Pettine was aware that government officials and legislators–whether federal, state, or local –sometimes care little about constitutional demands and less about the impact of their posturing on individuals who are not likely to conform to their moral prescriptions. Guided by this principle, Judge Pettine held that the Constitution permitted gays to hold a parade in Providence despite the fulminations of the Chief of police; and he ruled that a gay student could take his same-sex friend to a prom despite the objections of school administrators. Judge Pettine ruled that the demands of prisoners for conditions allowing a modicum of hygiene and health, not to mention access to their attorneys and the world beyond prison bars, could not be thwarted by prison bureaucrats, and he decided that so-called moral majorities could not deprive women of control of their own bodies.
Judge Pettine’s judicial credo is found in his decision about the prom-going gay student: “The Constitution is not self-explanatory, and answers to knotty problems are inevitably inexact. All that an individual judge can do is to apply the legal precedents as accurately and as honestly as he can, uninfluenced by personal predilections or the fear of community reaction, hoping each time to disprove the legal maxim that ‘hard cases make bad law.’ ” He reached this goal countless times, and for this we honor him.