Former state Supreme Court Justice John Copertino, a highly respected and scholarly judge who possessed a commanding knowledge of the law, died of cardiac arrest Dec. 20 in his Nissequogue home. He was 90.
"His passion was always the law and it was very important to him that he got things right, and he knew that it wasn’t an easy thing to get things right," said his son, Suffolk County District Court Judge Carl J. Copertino, of Deer Park. "You had to have compassion, you had to listen carefully, you had to know the case and you had to know the law and you had to let people have their say."
Born in Manhattan, John Copertino was raised in Jackson Heights. He earned a degree from the City College of New York in 1950 and enrolled at Fordham University School of Law, where he completed his first year before being drafted into the Army. He served for two years, completing basic training at Fort Knox, Kentucky, and then went to Fort Holabird, Maryland, where he went to counterintelligence corps school. He served the remainder of his service through 1953 in New York City in the counterintelligence corps. Copertino sped up his entry into the Army to avoid disrupting his law school studies, his son said. He graduated with his law degree in 1955 and entered private practice at a New York firm.
He met his wife, Elizabeth Heisig, in a Flushing, Queens, pizza place run by his uncle. Copertino noticed Elizabeth but could not stay, so he told his uncle to let him know when she came back so he could ask her for a date, his family said. Elizabeth returned later and Copertino's uncle did as he was told. They were married for 63 years and had three children and seven grandchildren. They got married on Sept. 17, 1955.
His daughter, Ann Marie Copertino, of Massapequa, said her father was "very close with his grandchildren. He was an inspiration to all of them. He really instilled in them the love of learning and that education was first and foremost."
In 1962, the Suffolk County district attorney's office employed Copertino part time, his son said. He held positions including trial assistant, indictments bureau chief and appeals bureau chief. The family lived in Setauket in July 1959, and in 1965 moved to a home in Nissequogue, where they resided for more than 50 years.
Copertino assumed the bench in 1969 as a Suffolk County District Court judge, a position he held until 1977, and then as a County Court judge from 1978 to 1987.
He was elected to the state Supreme Court for the 10th Judicial District in 1988. In July 1991, Gov. Mario Cuomo designated him to the Appellate Division's Second Department.
Defense attorney William Keahon, of Hauppauge, knew Copertino for more than four decades. "He was one of the most honorable and talented men I have ever met, and he taught so many of the men and women in Suffolk County how to practice law the right way, and I will never forget his guidance and support," Keahon said.
His grandson, James F.X. Petrich, of Lindenhurst, who is a Suffolk County assistant district attorney, said his grandfather "expected a lot of integrity in all of us."
"Despite being such a big presence, he was still kind of quiet, and whenever he said something, it was because he meant it," Petrich said.
Copertino retired in December 2004. Ann Marie Copertino said he loved the seashore, boating and spending time with his family. He was an avid reader and Mets fan.
In addition to his wife, son and daughter, he is survived by another daughter, Theresa Filicia, an attorney in San Diego; his sister, Frances Fox, of Florida; and seven grandchildren. A wake was held Sunday at St. James Funeral Home. A Mass was celebrated Christmas Eve at Sts. Philip & James Roman Catholic Church in St. James. He was buried at Calverton National Cemetery.