A Judge In Federal Court for 31 Years and Football Player
John M. Cannella, was a former Fordham football star who worked his way through law school playing tackle for the New York Giants, then survived the rough and tumble of Tammany Hall politics to spend more than 30 years as a Federal District Court judge in Manhattan.
By 1963, when President John F. Kennedy appointed him to the Federal bench, Judge Cannella had displayed a certain nimbleness in his career.
The son of a Manhattan shoemaker who became a bailiff, he had dreamed of becoming a doctor, but after he completed a pre-med course at Fordham in 1930, the reality of Depression finances forced him to switch to a less costly career.
Fortunately, Mr. Cannella had a marketable skill to help pay his law school bills. At Fordham he had been one of as many as 10 linemen who formed the original Seven Blocks of Granite, a designation later dusted off for the 1936 edition that included Vince Lombardi.
After playing two seasons with the Giants, Mr. Cannella received his law degree from Fordham in 1933 and joined a law firm closely connected with the Democratic political machine. However, with New York City under Republican control, he had to look to the Federal level for an assist into public service, becoming an assistant United States Attorney in charge of narcotics prosecutions in Manhattan in 1940, and later serving as a lawyer with the Internal Revenue Service in New York.
When William O’Dwyer succeeded Fiorello H. La Guardia and restored Tammany’s influence over patronage in 1946, Mr. Cannella was on his way, becoming Commissioner of Water, Sewer, Gas and Electricity in 1946, then Commissioner of Licenses in 1948, and winning the first of a series of municipal judicial appointments, to the old Court of Special Sessions, in 1949.
After his appointment to the Federal bench in 1963, Judge Cannella handled a number of celebrated cases. It was he, for example, who imposed a 2 1/2-year sentence on Clifford Irving in 1972 after the author pleaded guilty to conspiracy in connection with his bogus biography of Howard Hughes.
In 1981, Judge Cannella upheld the right of New York City to stop collecting dues for the teachers’ union because of a nine-day strike in 1975, and in 1985 he issued a crucial ruling that cleared the way for Carl C. Icahn’s takeover of T.W.A.
In 1987, while presiding over the early stages of the Wedtech corruption trials, Judge Cannella, who thought he had seen and heard it all, was dumbfounded when Representative Mario Biaggi, the Bronx Democrat who had been indicted on bribery and other charges in the Wedtech case, entered a thunderous plea of “absolutely not guilty.” Until then, Judge Cannella mused from the bench, he had been aware of only four pleas in criminal cases: guilty, not guilty, remains mute, and nolo contendere, or no contest.
“Now I have heard a fifth one,” he said. (The novel plea proved little help to Mr. Biaggi. He was eventually convicted of 18 felony counts, sentenced to eight years in prison, and released for health reasons after serving two.)
A long time resident of Douglaston, Queens, John M. Cannella was 88 at the time of his death in 1996, and had been active as a senior judge in the Southern District of New York until late 1994.