Episode 5: Growing Up as an American Immigrant with Emil Giordano
Transcript: Ray Lahoud/Emil Giordano
Welcome to Norris Speaks – Immigration Matters, a limited podcast series where we delve into the economic, employment, and cultural realities of immigration in the Lehigh Valley and Greater Pennsylvania. I am your host, Ray , member and chair of the immigration group at Norris McLaughlin. On this episode, I’m joined by the truly honorable Judge Emil Giordano, a man whom I’ve known for decades, who has a sense of dedication, intelligence, compassion, and integrity that I’ve truly never seen in any attorney before. Judge Giordano is a litigator, a leader I’ve long called a preeminent and distinguished attorney, who is respected across Pennsylvania. He truly crosses both party lines and all levels of courts in terms of his practice and the like. Judge Giordano is a partner of mine here at Norris McLaughlin. He serves as chair of the firm’s litigation group and is one of Pennsylvania’s top mediators and arbitrators. Before joining Norris McLaughlin, Judge Giordano served years on Northampton County’s bench. What’s critical about Judge Giordano’s character is his incredible sense of candor, authenticity, and humility. And he’s certainly someone who, I’ve learned, does not forget about his roots as an Italian American and his parents, his native Italy. Welcome, Judge, great to have you!
Heck of an introduction, my friend. I’m really, really honored to be here, and thank you for the kind words. Ray, it’s always a pleasure, and love coming downstairs and talking to you during the workday. We share such a similar background. And love being on your show!
So, you know, judge, when you first joined Norris McLaughlin about a year and a half ago or so or two years ago, I was just walking down the street and I ran into somebody, introduced myself and just told them I was an attorney at Norris McLaughlin. And within minutes, this man was hugging me, and I had no idea who he was. And he told me that he knew you. It turns out this man is a, you know, big man out there in Harrisburg and the like, and it was just shocking. How do you do it? How does everybody know you? And how does everyone know you in the Lehigh Valley, like when we walked down the street in Allentown and people were just coming up to you and saying, judge, how are you, judge, how are you, how did you start this?
I’ll tell you how I started this, and I really have to give a lot of credit to my mother. And I have to tell you, my parents have been the biggest influence in my life. My mom taught me to be nice to everyone you meet. And I, I try to be nice to every single person. You don’t have anything good to say, don’t say anything at all, and treat everyone with respect. Those lessons I learned from my mother. It served me well in my career and it taught me how to be polite and friendly. And I’ve carried those skills with me my entire life.
Your mom and dad, were they born in Italy?
My mom was born in Luciano, which is right outside Avellino, right outside Naples. And she came to this country when she was 15 years old and went to live with an aunt she barely knew. She worked in a sewing machine factory.
Whereabouts, where was it. Where did she live?
She lived in Brooklyn.
Perfect. Okay. All right,
My father came over when he was 17, and they met in 1957 in night school in Brooklyn when they were both learning to speak English. My father went to work at a shoe factory, and they met, and I was born in Brooklyn in 1959.
And I don’t mean to interrupt you. They actually, they came here and went to school to learn English within a short period of time of coming here. This is back in the 50’s.
Yes. Within weeks of being here, they went to night school and learned to speak English and
Assimilation is important.
And I will tell you how they met. And I remember the story. My father had a watch that glowed in the dark. He put his hand over his watch and said, you want to see this? And that’s how they met. And I was born in 1959 in Brooklyn, and I’m glad I lost that accent.
How many brothers and sisters do you have here in the states?
I have one sister who is four years younger than me. She was born in East New York also.
So, you’re the oldest.
Yes. And I have a brother who is 14 years younger than me. And he was born in Staten Island, New York.
So, coming here as the first, right? I think of it in the context of me. My mother and my father were born in Lebanon. So, coming here in the context of being the oldest child of first-generation Americans, how has that pressure, how did you deal with that pressure being that first child of first generation Americans? Who, back in that time, even into the eighties and early nineties and the like really pushed the idea of education and success and pushing the extremes to do that. And as the oldest child, how did you deal with that?
And I was, I have to be honest with you. I went to law school. My sister went to medical school, and my brother got his MBA now.
So, I never wanted to be a lawyer, Ray. They wanted me to be a doctor. But I was horrible at chemistry, and I didn’t want to be a lawyer. I wanted to be a musician, and there was no way these Italian immigrants were going to send a kid to college to be a musician. So, I ended up going to law school. That’s the truth. And my sister went into medicine.
I love it, I love it. So you wanted to be a musician. And we know you’re in a band right now, which is awesome. And we’re going to push it to that next level there and take you national at some point with that. But did you try to convince your parents to let you go and become a musician ,or was it just out of the question there?
I did everything. I actually applied to Berkeley Music School, and my dad…. and I’m pretty sure I had the interview set up because there’s a written admission portion and then there’s a physical audition. And I had to go through the physical audition, and my father said, you’re not going. We’re not, we’re not sending you there. You’re going to end up on a street corner. People are going to be throwing money into a hat. So that was it. There was no question. They were not supporting me in doing that.
Were they pushing you more towards like the four year college or towards like a law school, advanced degree or the like, or was it more of a trade or
I was going to be either a lawyer or a doctor. I was horrible at chemistry.
Same here, yeah, science is my worst subject.
My parents never graduated from high school. My sister, to this day, has to, you know, help my mom with writing checks and things. And that’s fine. My dad valued education. He didn’t have a lot, but he really valued it and they put a premium on that. And I’m very grateful for that.
They made it survive, your family. They pushed you. So there was, my understanding as you know, Lebanese growing up in the Lehigh Valley and you were, I believe you were more in the slate belt area, in the Bethlehem area. The Lebanese were in the Easton area, and there’s a lot of Italians also in the Easton area and the like. In terms of community and all, when did you actually, when did you move to the Lehigh Valley, Judge?
Funny stories, Ray.
Sorry. It seems, it’s not as, made up.
No, tell them please.
I was 13 years old. I was at St. Charles in Staten Island. I was having the time of my life. I was getting ready to play football at Monsignor Farrell High School in Staten Island. And I was in summer practice, and my dad comes home from work and says, we’re moving to Pennsylvania. And I said, ah, I’m not moving to Pennsylvania. I’m going to play football for Monsignor Farrell next year. He goes, no, we’re moving to Pennsylvania and we’re going into the pizza business. Now my dad worked in a shoe factory, and I said, what? He goes, we’re going into the pizza business. And I’m like, no, I’m not. He goes, oh yes we are. And what I didn’t realize was, we were all going into the pizza business. So
It’s a family business.
I went to work for my mom and dad, and I didn’t play football in high school much because of this. And I worked with my mom and dad. My sister stayed at home and watched my younger brother. And we opened the first pizza shop and we worked there for years together.
Where was that?
First one was in New Jersey.
Phillipsburg, New Jersey.
Oh, Phillipsburg, yes.
And then my dad opened one in Bethlehem, and then the one up in Egypt, and they did outstanding. Then he opened up the fourth one. And then he went into some other businesses. He went into real estate development and he really did well for himself.
So, he came here with nothing.
He came here with nothing.
Your mother came here with nothing.
Within a couple of weeks, they were in school learning English. They were working at factories and places where they were probably piecemealed to get paid in the like. Make a decision to go into a business out of nowhere, and over the years have developed and have built restaurants, have put their kids through school, law school have other businesses, have real estate, have done so much. So, judge, what’s happening now?
I had the distinct opportunity and honor, when I was a Court of Common Pleas judge, to sit on swearing in day when Americans, when people became American citizens, and that ceremony, the nationalization
I would volunteer all the time to do that. Because to me, I was reliving my parents, and I invited my mom and dad so many times and they would come.
Others take the oath to this country, and I will tell you, the people I met through those nationalization programs were hardworking, ingenuous people who want, who came to this country for a better life. And I think most people who come to this country are coming for a better life, Ray. And given the right opportunities, they’ll make a better life for themselves. I know in the restaurant business, for instance, we have a lot of people who come, a lot of Guatemalans, and we’ve been very fortunate. My family have great employees, great workers.
You do you do it the right way though, to do it? And that’s the way it’s done in what I see here, but I didn’t mean to interrupt you there, but as an immigration lawyer in looking at it, you’re lucky and your family has been lucky to be able to develop that. But it’s so hard for people from outside of the country to be able to come to the United States right now, like on work visas or even, you know, family based visas, as it could take years, by the time they find employers, sponsors. And it’s really concerning, particularly given our, you know, where we are with the inability to find employees in the United States, in the Lehigh Valley particularly, we obviously need true comprehensive immigration reform. I think we can all agree on that. That really looks at, you know, merit-based immigration and the full scope of it. You know, when people think of merit, they think of advanced degrees or the like. To me, merit is work that is not being done. Merit is work. That’s skilled work, work that is not being done by anybody else needs somebody that has a skill to do that work. And those are workers that we need in the United States. And it’s become so hard to, for companies to sponsor people and all. It’s interesting because so much of our economy is dependent on, and I’ll be very frank, on undocumented labor. And a lot of companies … that’s the truth. That’s out there that, you know, there are a lot of issues or a lot of new workers who are working without documentation. And we just kind of have to get them to a, some kind of a pathway that lets them be able, potentially, to work here legally.
People need to come to this country. We need people to come here, and we need people to come here legally. We need people to be employed, that can be employed and not be a burden. That’s the great American way, isn’t it? This is the beacon for other nations. The land of opportunity.
But what is it that like, I see this passion in you every single day, it feeds you, and you’re running down the steps, you’re running for the next person. You’re always on the phone, picking up the phone, and you’re picking up calls at midnight, two, three o’clock in the morning, jumping on cases, taking on cases, pro bono left and right, saving dogs, literally saving dogs. Thank God, because I love dogs! And how do you do it? How do you, you know, the passion that you have, I look at you and it’s truly admirable. What keeps you going day after day? It can’t be just money.
It’s not, you know, Ray. You know, I just turned 62, Right.
62 and I’m retired. I’m still trying to figure out what I want to be when I grow up.
I do. But I’m not really that good. So I made the right choice. I was meant to be a mediator, arbitrator, lawyer. I was, that was the, uh, my parents were right, and I was wrong. I chose the right career. I really enjoy people. I really like people. And I like helping people. I like being around people. Most people are great, are good people. And you know, the Lord has blessed me in so many ways. So, if I can help someone else, I’m more than grateful. I’m more than happy to do it. And you know, that’s how I live my life.
You’ve run for office, you know, countywide, statewide, you know, on the Republican ticket. And if you crossed on, you know, certain tickets and the like, but you have this ability to truly cross party lines when you’re running for office.Actually that Democrat that I ran into in Harrisburg was actually a registered Democrat. But, you know, he has an incredible amount of respect there and that’s something that’s truly evident. I see it a lot in our immigrant community, because from there, and hopefully you can add to this a bit, judge, there’s the sense of pride in the sense of, of wanting to succeed. You know, to me, it’s a sense of wanting to make my mother proud, to have her talk about me.
The same things drive me, my friend. The same things drive me. you know, Ray, because it goes back to being nice to people and wanting to help them. And both of us who’ve been so blessed in our lives, Ray.
We have been.
Just think about how lucky and fortunate we are. If we had the opportunity to help someone, and we’re both talking about that one dog case, we know the case and we won’t embarrass anyone, but, you know, we, we’re both standing up for what is right in this world. And see, politics taught me a lot because I ran a five political races Ray, five, two of them statewide. And I made a lot of friends. I lost both those races. But you know what, no regrets. I made a lot of good friends.
You built on them. You like everyone, you always came out ahead. That’s the thing, you always came out a winner. And I truly believe that.
Well, you know, you’re very kind. Let me tell you a story. Now I’m going to tell you a little story. I ran for the Superior Court, not once but twice, and the second time — my family didn’t really want me to run the second time. There were three open seats. And I’ve run before and I figured, you know, I can win this time. And I worked twice as hard the second time, raised twice as much money. I got the endorsement of labor, of the FOP, of the teachers. I mean, as a Republican getting labor, teacher endorsements.
it’s almost unheard of, but everyone thought I was going to win. Right. So here it is election night. And you know, I had traveled from Erie to Easton from Bradford to Bethlehem. I had been to Pittsburgh 15 times during that period. At home watching the election returns come in, and I’m here. My mother’s here. My sister with her family. My sons are here, my wife, watching the returns come in. My brother’s on the computer getting returns. My son is on his phone getting returns and the TV’s getting returns, right? So, we have the channel 69 news on and channel 69 reports, Northampton County, Lehigh County first. The room explodes because I’m winning four to one. People are just so excited. And then Lucerne and Lackawanna come in, Democratic counties. I am number two overall out of seven.
Erie county comes in I’m number two in Erie. Allegheny County I’m fourth, which is not bad for …
But those are all counties that are multi-cultural communities and all, yeah.
I’m doing well and I’m holding my own throughout the middle of the state. And then all of a sudden Philadelphia County comes in, and it’s like it’s clear to me, I can’t overcome those numbers. And you know, I’m watching, now you have to understand, I have my kids watching this. Right? And my sister, my mom, everyone’s really upset. So, I have to take a moment and I’m like, bring everybody up. I’m looking at my wife. I’m, like I said, don’t worry, I’ll run again. And my wife said no way, no, no. I said, she goes, are you crazy? I said, no. I said, I won’t do it. I said, honey, when you met me, I was a small town lawyer in Egypt, Pennsylvania. Could you ever imagine in your wildest dreams that I would run for the Superior Court in Pennsylvania, not once but twice. And she looked at me and she said, honey, you’re not in my wildest dreams.
Oh gosh, I thought it was going to be. …
I’m sorry Ray. All of that story is true, except for the punch line. Actually it is.
I’m waiting for this awesome emotional end. Why did you? I mean, you were, I mean, you had a thriving practice in Egypt, Pennsylvania, where you had clients from all over the place. You were involved in a lot. Why did you even decide to run for Hampton County? Was it a Hampton County judge first, initially?
Well, I ran for district attorney.
Why would you want that, why?
DA was not a political thing to me. I always aspired to being a United States attorney when I was in law school. That was my calling. I love law enforcement, big law and order guy. And sort of thought that would be a good step. But John, John Morganelli beat me. And once he was in, it would have been impossible to move him because John, like myself, had a lot of appeal to the other side.
I knew it would have been impossible to unseat him. I ran for county counsel in the middle there. In a district that was two to one better press for Republicans. And I got beat. Close race, though.
But why, because politics, it’s not the way, you know, I always thought it was before, when I was a congressional page. When I was younger, when I was 16 years old, when I went to Washington DC, I was a Republican page. It was the years of Tom DeLay, and you know, Daschle, was down there. And Dick Armey I think was the majority leader at the time, you know, and I just saw that politics, even back then in the nineties, were just such a … very disheartening to me, at least at that point. They were just incredibly disheartening. And that’s why I ask somebody like you, why?
You know, no one in my family’s ever been involved in politics, although my cousin in Italy is the mayor of the town she lives in. But I saw judge and being DA not as political positions. Judge was never a political position for me.
I always just saw it as, that was a calling for me. I mean, I’ve been offered the opportunity to run for Congress several times.
The call is still out there, by the way, if you’d like.
Thanks governor, I have no desire to run for political office again. I gave my time. I’m 62. I don’t really want to travel around and do these, you know, three stops in one night.
I think you made an important distinction here, though — that in Pennsylvania we elect judges. So, there is that political process to it. And you know we elect DA’s. There is that initial political process, too, which I think is the part that frustrates me the most in terms of the politics, the fundraising and the like. Being a judge, I agree with you, should not be political at all. Or even being a DA should not be political at all.
I agree. And I know my phone starts ringing every year. People want to know about if I want to run for this, and am I going to run for that. And I have no interest, none.
Well, you can’t leave Norris McLaughlin now. So you are an equity member of this firm, and you are my partner at this firm as the head of litigation. And as our go-to person here for when it comes to the top, when it comes to mediations and arbitration, because you have that ability to bring people together. And even in the arbitrations and the mediations where people, they recognize that not both sides are going to be happy in a certain case, but you get them to a reasonable point, and you’re able to talk to that point but meet the expectations that are out there.
I probably found a job I think I was born to do. I was born to do this job with mediation, and I truly enjoy doing it. It’s hard work. It’s harder than people think, because I really can’t ever say what I’m really thinking because I have to be diplomatic and try to bring people together. And sometimes you’ll come in and the plaintiff’s demanding $990,000 and the defendant offers $5,000. “I ask the defendant, how could you offer $5,000 in the face of this demand of $990,000?” Defendant will say to me, “Well, judge, I couldn’t start at a negative number.” So, I had, to come up with … but I really enjoy that. In fact, that’s what I was doing all morning. Was doing mediations all morning.
Oftentimes people kind of walk into arbitrations and mediations with very high expectations.
Sometimes it takes a long time to get to that point. So, but Judge, it was, it was so good having you.
It was my pleasure Ray, my pleasure.
You are awesome. You are the man. And if you want to run for governor, you know, we can get that done for you, but you’re a lifeline here at Norris McLaughlin, and we’re really proud to have you here. You know, proud to call you a partner at that this firm.
I feel the same way, and I love everybody who works in your group, Ray. And I feel so lucky to be at a place like Norris, and people are so wonderful. And thanks for having me on today. You made me think about some things. And I’m sorry if I threw you for a loop with that.
No, I like it.
I couldn’t let that go, couldn’t resist, Ray. I couldn’t resist. Awesome. So this has been Norris Speaks-Immigration Matters, a limited podcast series where we delve into the economic employment and cultural realities of immigration in the Lehigh Valley and Greater Pennsylvania. I want to thank Judge Emil Giordano for joining us today and each of you for listening. Be sure to tune in next time for a brand-new episode. If you would like to learn more about immigration law in the Lehigh Valley, feel free to visit our firstname.lastname@example.org.