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Memories of Supreme Court appearance still resonate with Ronald Dion
By Michael Laderman
ALTAMONTE SPRINGS, Florida — Although it occurred more than 30 years ago, to Ronald Dion, his 15-minutes of fame might as well just be 30 days ago.
"I didn’t think I could, but I actually remember so much about it," he said, from his current home in Altamonte Springs, Florida. "The flight into Washington, D.C., walking into the courtroom itself for the first time, and, of course, the outcome."
The memories that were now coming quickly to Ron were those of when, as a young attorney in South Florida, he was given an opportunity not afforded to many in the legal profession: He fought a case in front of the Supreme Court of the United States of America.
And he did so while going up against another powerful attorney, one who, himself, would soon find himself on the bench of the Supreme Court: Samuel A. Alito, Jr.
The outcome, unfortunately, was not what Ron had hoped for.
But it was not surprising.
His case, you see, was a long shot at best. His client, Joseph C. Russello, was convicted in Federal District Court, under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations chapter of the Organized Crime Control Act of 1970, of being involved in an arson ring that resulted in his fraudulently receiving insurance proceeds in payment for the fire loss of a building he owned. At stake was whether or not Mr. Russello would keep those financial benefits.
As one of South Florida's top appellate attorneys at the time , Ron was known for a fiery tenacity, a willingness to take cases that many others would not, when he felt a client was not getting a fair deal. He often went against the odds, and, in many of those situations, was victorious.
The case against Mr. Russello was a difficult – and unique – one.
“I felt that the law was not clear,” Ron explained. “My argument was: If the words of the law were correct, then we would not have had a case. But since we felt the words were not written correctly in the law, then I had a case. I had a chance to win for my client. And I remember, it wasn’t about who was right, or who was wrong. It was all about how the law was written.”
Words, he said, he echoed to his client.
“I remember telling [Russello], ‘we don’t necessarily have the best case on our side, but I am hoping we can appeal to the Court’s common sense.’”
Ron knew that getting to the Supreme Court of the United States of America was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. One that does not happen often in the life of a typical attorney.
But that is where Ronald Dion was different. He was not your typical attorney. Even as, at that time, just a young attorney [he was weeks shy of 31, when the Supreme Court saw the case on October 5, 1983], he was greatly seasoned. He had been in practice already for seven years, and in that time, already had applied for -- and was strongly considered for -- judgeship in both Dade and Broward counties. His record was not spotless, but his reputation was.
When he began his law career, he did so as a highly recruited graduate of University of Miami Law School. Ron garnered a 3.8 grade point average in his years at UM, which followed a stellar experience at Boca Raton's Florida Atlantic University – “stellar,” because Ron finished four years of undergraduate studies in just two years.
When he began practicing law, he worked criminal appeal cases for the Prosecutor’s Office. It was then that he received his first taste of the big-time: Going up against famed attorney Ellis Rubin in the even more famous “State of Florida v. Ronny A. Zamora” case. This 1977 murder case made national headlines, as Attorney Ellis Rubin’s defense was that television was responsible for the death of the victim.
For this case, Ron fought alongside Attorney General Robert L. Shevin. Ron was Special Assistant Attorney General.
“We won that one,” Ron recalled, a huge grin on his face when saying that.
Ron’s life has since taken a different turn, due to an aneurism suffered in 1987. He has since been out of the public’s spotlight, instead focusing on his health and family.
But even so, even with three decades having gone by, he still fondly recalls his biggest loss on, perhaps, the biggest stage on what was then a sensational legal career.
“Up until we received the Supreme Court’s decision [three weeks later], I felt we had a chance to win,” Ron said. “When I left the courtroom that day, I felt really good about our chances. I was ecstatic about the whole process and how I did.
“Still, we knew we didn’t have the best case at the Supreme Court, but I still had to fight it. I still had a chance for my client. When it was over, it didn’t matter that I had lost. I had someone who, right or wrong, with his back against the wall, asked me to help him. And I did.”
What also helped take the sting away from the loss was a letter written to Ron by Gordon B. Baldwin, Professor of Law with the University of Wisconsin’s Law School, who fought a case immediately after Ron’s.
“Dear Mr. Dion,” the letter read. “Your argument in Russello was a model of precision, clarity and grace. That it presented a complicated issue of statutory construction was evident, but that you were able to explain it to the court was impressive. I enjoyed hearing you, and indeed found it especially helpful in preparing myself for the afternoon in Welsh v. Wisconsin. I am indebted to you more than you could realize.”