Last month, we published a story on the birth and death of the infamous Eagles Court. It featured recollections from the Rendell administration, including anecdotes about grown men peeing in sinks, in an effort to separate myth from reality around the actual judicial proceedings.
But the article was missing one major voice: The judge. Seamus McCaffery.
He didn’t respond to voicemails; I figured McCaffery had probably given up speaking to the media for good after his resignation as Supreme Court Justice last year days after he was ensnared in the still ongoing porny email scandal. Turns out he was just out of town for a while.
I met McCaffery at the new Wawa at Broad and Walnut last week. While he declined to speak about his career or anything else happening in the crazy world of Pennsylvania politics, he reminisced plenty about Eagles Court, from its Jim Kenney origins to crazy stories about people in the court to the last time he went to an Eagles game as a fan and witnessed a fight break out in front of him.
Here’s our conversation, lightly edited for brevity and clarity. Also, if you haven’t seen it yet be sure to check out our original piece about Eagles Court, which has been updated slightly to add some of McCaffery’s insights.
Jim Kenney called you and first discussed the possibility of an Eagles Court. How did that come about?
Let me start a little early on. I guess this was around 1998 (Ed.’s note, 1997). We had created a quality of life court. The quality of life court basically was when we put a judge into the communities, the actual neighborhoods. I was the judge who’d go and sit down at 11th and Wharton streets, 22nd and Hunting Park wherever they were having quality of life crimes. And we defined quality of life crimes at the time — and this connects up to Eagles Court — as disorderly conduct, public urination. The kinds of crimes that were making neighborhoods go down the tubes, the kinds of crimes that made people who could move, move. They were putting their homes up for sale, moving out to the suburbs. And guys like myself and then sitting city councilman Jim Kenney were very much in tune with what was going on in the neigborhoods. Matter of fact, Jim Kenney called me to bring night court into the South Philly areas.
All of a sudden there was that infamous (Eagles) game where there were I believe 60 fistfights in the stands. That was the night a man from Delray, NJ fired a flare gun across the field. The flare landed, thank God, in an empty seat. The public outrage was unbelievable. You started reading stories about people not wanting to take their children to the game and Vet Stadium was not equipped for the kind of violence spread out all over the place. The law enforcement community and the Philadelphia Eagles’ security personnel were stretched really thin. So to make a long story short, I receive a phone call from city councilman Kenney and Jim said to me, ‘Seamus, do you mind meeting Jeff Lurie and Joe Banner? They want to talk to you about putting an actual courtroom in the stadium.’
And at first I thought you got to be kidding me. I said sure I’ll go down. And I went down and met them at the Vet. And Mr. Lurie and Mr. Banner were pretty adamant that they needed to do something to take back to the stadium, to take back the image. I said to them ‘Look I’m a judge. You don’t have a courtroom.’ And they said they would build a courtroom in the basement of Veterans Stadium. They did, and we set up our first Eagles Court.
We actually kept data at the time. What we found was something like 85 to 90 percent, I believe, of the individuals pled guilty. And the overwhelming majority — maybe 95 percent — weren’t from Philadelphia.
We were astonished at how Philadelphia was always getting the negative press. Philadelphia was always getting blown up in the media, ‘we’re a city of crazy fans.’ But when we looked at the data, the data showed us that the fans were really from South Jersey, Delaware County, Montgomery County, Bucks County.
And depending on the actual team, for example, the Raiders, the New York Giants, and of course the Dallas Cowboys and last but not least the Washington Redskins, the crowds were different. The crowds that came in wearing these various shirts, the Philadelphia fans seemed to only get more out of control when you had guys like the Giants in town, the Dallas Cowboys in town. That’s when we had more arrests.
We used to get beat up a little bit by folks who said “You can’t try a drunk.” Well we weren’t trying a drunk. First of all, if somebody was so noticeably intoxicated we made sure they sat in the cell long enough until they sobered up.
So they’d sit in the cell that was in Veterans Stadium and then at the police station at Wharton when Eagles Court was moved there?
When we first started this we met with the city’s public defenders office. We told them what we were going to do. We assured them that every defendant would know they were pleading guilty. We gave them their rights and we ensured that they understood if they didn’t pay (they’d have a future trial date).
And this was something Mr. Lurie and the Eagles wanted to implement: Anybody that was a season ticket holder, they revoked their season tickets. I’m telling you we actually had situations where grown men were at the court crying, offering to pay double the fines but not be found guilty so they wouldn’t lose their season tickets.
So those types of activities and what we did had such as positive impact on the stadium. Every single game on the Fan-O-Vision, they had if you break the law you’ll be brought down in front of Judge Seamus McCaffery. And people booed me but you know I can’t tell you how many hundreds if not thousands of people have approached me and thanked me for what we did. According to what we were being told, people felt safe.
Eagles court landed you a great deal of fame then?
Time Warner flew me and my wife out of to Hollywood. They offered me a TV position.
You could’ve been like a Judge Judy of sorts. I guess Judge Mills Lane would be a better comparison.
Well, yeah but the reality was the day they flew us out that morning they interviewed Judge Alex. That evening they interviewed me. They offered me the job, offered me a nice opportunity to make some serious money. Upon thinking about it, I really wanted to move up in the courts, and I decided to forego it. And the rest is history.
I’m sure Eagles Court helped you move up politically.
Immensely. Everywhere I traveled, except for the Pittsburgh area of course. Once you cross the Blue Mountains it’s all black and gold. This side of the Blue Mountains I was known as the Eagles judge, and the notoriety was incredible.
When the courtroom was actually in the Vet that first year, what was it like inside of there?
It was a very spartan environment. They took an empty area and put up city blue colors. And they put in an actual raised-up floor and they put in a table, a wide table, and had blue bunting around it. We had the seal of the city of Philadelphia behind me and the American flag and the city flag left and right. For all essential purposes, it looked like a respectable court environment — not fancy like it was in City Hall or the Criminal Justice Center.
We had seats in front, with media. Public defenders would show up.
Just in case some of the guys wanted to plead not guilty and have a lawyer?
Exactly. We were able to collect fines at the time and for those individuals who wanted a trial we gave them a trial date. They had to show up. If they didn’t show up they were fined automatically. So it put some money into the city and most importantly it worked to send a message.
What are some of the stories you remember from the people in the court?
The one funny one was a young guy, the very last game at Veterans Stadium. They were about to demolish the stadium after the game. For whatever reason this young guy from the suburbs decided he wanted a toilet seat, an actual toilet seat. So he took the seat off the toilet. I can’t imagine what that toilet has seen over the years. And he was seen running down the hallway with the toilet seat over his head. So they arrested him. He was intoxicated. He ends up coming in front of me, and he pleaded guilty. And as he was leaving he said, ‘Is there any way I could have the toilet seat?’ Needless to say we didn’t give him the toilet seat. But it was just comical.
Another example is we had a season ticket holder in front of us, and he had his 10-year-old kid with him. He was throwing empty bottles or glasses or cups of ice onto the field. The man gets in front of me and was informed of what he was charged with and decided to say to us, ‘It wasn’t me. It was my son.’ The whole row of security guards were all shaking their heads like they couldn’t believe it. I said, ‘You dare blame this on your son. What kind of message does that send to this child?’
There were a lot of funny stories. I can’t tell you all of them because there was a lot promiscuous stuff going on.
We had one case in particular that I ran into during one of my campaigns. We end up having this one guy brought in front of me, and he’s got blood all over him, dried blood. He’d been in custody for hours. He comes up to the bar of the court and he proceeds to tell me a story. He says, ‘Your Honor, I’m from Scranton and have never been to a National Football League game in my life. My company was coming on a bus trip, and I decided to go. So I get on the bus. It’s a two hour ride, and all we do is drink beer. So by the time I got to the stadium I was pretty drunk. I walk in, I finally get to my seat and as I get to my seat I stagger and bump into somebody. Next thing I know I’m being pummeled and hit. The police come and lock me up. They take me downstairs and I spend the entire game in the jail here. And the worst thing is, your Honor, my bus left and went back to Scranton.’
I found him not guilty and his bus had already gone and he had no money. So I gave him money for the bus trip and had a policeman drive him back up to the Greyhound Station on Filbert Street. Years later, when I was campaigning in that part of the state at a bar/restaurant some people told me that story is known throughout the area.
Did Eagles Court add to Philadelphia’s reputation as being a rough place to see an NFL game?
Even though we haven’t had Eagles Court in God knows how many years, we still have people think we have Eagles Court. I still run into people this day that they didn’t know I was a Supreme Court Justice. They remember me as being the Eagles Court judge.
At the end of the day, a lot of people felt it gave us a bad image. When they opened up the Linc they did something really good down there. They put cameras everywhere, and they had seats with camera numbers. So instead of Fan-O-Vision with Seamus McCaffery’s name, it said if you see something going please text this phone number. I thought that was brilliant.
I’m being told now it’s getting out of control again.
But you know what it did was for a long time people thought Philadelphia must be a bad place to come. Philadelphia’s stadium is just really tough. It worked to cut down on the violence and the bad attitudes that were going on in the stadium. But then it actually grew into embellished stories about how violent Philadelphia is: ‘Your city is so crazy a court adjourns in the stadium during the game.’
I think Mr. Lurie and company decided time’s up they didn’t need it anymore.
Yeah it seemed like at the new stadium they probably wanted a fresh start for P.R. reasons.
But you have to remember, in my opinion, they had to get the word out. They had to let 60,000 fans know there’s a new sheriff in town. We’re not going to let you come in and be violent. So they needed to get as much press as they could and that press worked. But then it came to a point where it flatlined and it started going down. The press showed the dramatic decline in bad fan behavior but it also continued to perpetuate the myth that Philadelphia was just a really bad place to go, that it was violent and that Eagles stadium is one of the worst venues around. In reality, it really wasn’t, because the Court’s goal was to cut down on the violence. And it did. It worked.
Do you go to Eagles games these days?
I watch on TV at home. The last Eagles game I went to I showed up and I was wearing my old school Eagles jacket and Eagles hat. It was a Dallas game, actually. Three Dallas fans in front of us, two rows down — one young man decided to throw up on the Eagles fan in front of him. Next thing you know a big fight erupted. I’m sitting there with my brothers and next to a guy I didn’t know who turned to me and said, ‘Well Judge do you want to come out of retirement?’ And I looked at him and said no thanks.