The Hon. Victoria A. Graffeo called it an overwhelming and humbling feeling as she stood on the stage of the Grand Ballroom in the luxurious Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in front of some of the most highly regarded and influential lawyers and judges in the state.
It's hard to blame her. Graffeo received the 48th-annual Rapallo Award, presented by the Columbian Lawyers Association, First Judicial Department, on Saturday night. It's one of the most coveted awards at one of the more prestigious events of its kind.
“It's such an honor to follow so many distinguished jurists that have received this award,” Graffeo said. “It's such a gorgeous venue and it's such a tribute to the hard work all Italian-American lawyers and judges have made and their contributions to our justice system.”
The award - named for Charles A. Rapallo, the first Italian/American jurist to be named to the New York State Court of Appeals - is indeed prestigious. In the past it has been given to some big names, including Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, Governor George Pataki, and Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia.
“We couldn't have chosen a more well deserved recipient of this award,” proclaimed the event's co-chairperson, Marianne E. Bertuna. “She really is the epitome of what we look for when giving out this award, and she has made all of us so proud.”
Graffeo is a Senior Associate Judge in the NYS Court of Appeals, but she began her career as a teacher in Upstate New York. Eventually she graduated from the Albany Law School of Union University and began her career in 1978 as a civil and criminal litigant in both the state and federal courts. She served as Solicitor General of the State of New York and Counsel to the Attorney General, and spent 10 years in the NYS Assembly Minority before beginning her judicial career.
Her judicial career began in 1996 when she was appointed by Governor Pataki to fill a vacancy on the New York Supreme Court in the Third Judicial District of upstate New York. She was elected to a full-term on the Supreme Court trial bench that November. In March of 1998, she was elevated to the Appellate Division, Third Department and she began her 14-year term at the Court of Appeals in December of 2000.
Graffeo was the first Italian-American woman to sit on the NYS Court of Appeals and she was appropriately presented with her award by Hon. Judith S. Kaye, who was the first woman appointed to the NYS Court of Appeals.
It was a remarkable ceremony that included the presentation of colors by the NYS Courts Ceremonial Unit and a presentation of the Italian flag by Brigadier General Mario Sumatra of the Italian Army. A patriotic medley was sung by Hon. John A. Milano of Queens before the event's invocation.
During the recognition of distinguished guests, it was pointed out that there was an empty seat on the dais that was reserved for the recently deceased Hon. Anthony J. Cutrona, who received the Rapallo Award in 2001.
“He's eating a rice ball in the picture of him in the program because we felt that perfectly fit his personality,” Bertuna said jokingly. “He is greatly missed by the Columbian Lawyers Association.”
In her closing statements to the crowd, Graffeo thanked the organization; its president, Andrew Maggio; and the co-chairs who organized the event, Bertuna and Stephen J. Saava.
“Thank you to the Columbian Lawyers Association for this award and for hosting the event,” Graffeo said. “I hope to continue to work to advance our profession and our people. Thank you for bestowing such a prestigious award on an upstater.”