December 6th, 2012

An Open Letter to Gov. Cuomo On Filling Two Court of Appeals Seats

Gov. Cuomo:

You now have two spots to fill on New York’s Court of Appeals, as a result of the retirement of Judge Carmen Ciparick at the end of this year and the untimely death of Judge Theodore Jones last month.

There is now a list available of seven candidates for the first slot, that of Judge Ciparick.

It isn’t my intention to parse that list here, or the next list that comes out with respect to the late Judge Jones. Rather, it is to remind you that New York has a long tradition of elevating practicing lawyers, and judges that used to be practicing lawyers, to high positions.

While this would seem to be pretty obvious — who but a practicing lawyer could appreciate much of the procedural nuance and nonsense that takes place — it bears repeating due to the stark contrast with the US Supreme Court and the national political stage.

Back in 2009 President Obama needed to fill the seat vacated by Judge Souter. Before he selected Sonia Sotomayor, I wrote about the need for having lawyers who had once practiced in the private sector up on the bench. I called that The Tissue Box Test, based on lawyers knowing what it is like to have sobbing clients in the office, and trying to deal with the legal issues that brought them  there.

I urge you to read it.

But if you don’t want to click that link, this is snippet:

I want a nominee to know what it’s like to see real people — not political philosophies or corporate giants trying to add a few cents per share to their earnings — in their office in distress, and to represent them. I want a nominee that has experienced being the last, best hope for a downtrodden individual and the problem brought in the door. I want someone who knows what it’s like to be the underdog against corporate or government interests.

There is more at the link, and what I wrote back then still holds true today. It isn’t just political philosophy that is important, but having a true appreciation for the problems of desperate individuals trying to obtain a small bit of justice.

I hope that, as analysis of the judicial list goes on, that these will be considerations. For all of the judicial philosophizing in the world won’t make up for decisions that treat people as merely “interesting issues.”

In other words, beware those with a lifetime in academia. Beware those that never ran an office, worked on behalf of individuals or made a payroll. Beware those who have not had one-on-one dealings with those frantic for legal service.

And look for those that kept a box of tissues on their desks to hand to the clients in need.

Respectfully  yours,

–Eric Turkewitz


November 6th, 2012

Court of Appeals Judge Theodore Jones Dies at 68

Judge Theodore Jones. Photo courtesy of New York Court of Appeals.

New York Court of Appeals Judge Theodore Jones died suddenly last night of an apparent heart attack. He was just  68. Judge Jones ascended to New York’s high court by way of the Brooklyn courts, where he was highly regarded for his respect for both the law and lawyers.

That respect is reflected in the following introduction of Judge Jones delivered a few years ago by Evan Goldberg when the New York State Bar Association gave  him an award. The remarks are reprinted here with the permission of Goldberg.


Our speaker this evening is well known to us all.  Judge Theodore Jones has long been a friend of the trial bar, after years of being a trial lawyer himself. He started in the Legal Aid Society, then went to private practice and began his career as a judge in the Juvenile Offender part of Kings County.  All this helped shape his judicial character, as a jurist who honestly wants to help people.

His rapid elevation, from Supreme Court, to Administrative Judge, to the Court of Appeals is a testament to the high regard his colleagues have for him.  And his TV persona, exhibited during the infamous 2005 transit strike let other people in on what was, at that time, Brooklyn’s best kept secret; that when Judge Teddy Jones got onto a case, an equitable resolution was soon to follow.

When the trial bar lost Judge Jones to the Court of Appeals, we all grieved, because we need judges like him for our trials, but we took collective solace in the knowledge that he would be safeguarding the rule of law in a Court deserving of his inspired participation.  Whether he’s penning a scholarly opinion or driving for the green on the golf course, he always devotes his impressive skill with full effort, skill and passion.

For me, personally, Judge Jones has always been available to lend his ear and offer advice.  His inclusive, fathering approach is innate.  He regularly attends the lawyer golf outings and he’s so good.  How good is he?  He’s so good, we don’t even have to pretend to lose.  Um, not that we do that.   Judge Jones is also quite the marksman, a skill he undoubtedly honed when he was a Brooklyn Court Street lawyer.  His service as a captain in Viet Nam may also have helped.

Just two days ago, our association’s Diversity Committee gave Judge Jones a lifetime achievement award for his longstanding efforts to advance minorities in our profession.  Whether he’s working with high school students, seasoned veterans, or anything in between, Judge Jones is everyone’s BFF.  I was truly honored on behalf of our association, when Judge Jones agreed to be our speaker.  Ladies and gentlemen, I present Associate Judge of the NYS Court of Appeals, the Honorable Theodore T. Jones, Jr.

Update: From the New York Law Journal, a sampling of opinions from Judge Jones.



March 28th, 2011

New York Courts To Suffer More Budget Slashing

Yesterday the New York Legislature and Gov. Andrew Cuomo reached a budget deal that includes $170M in cuts to the judiciary, representing 6.3% of the its budget. This is bad, bad news for anyone who values a competent justice system.

It was just three weeks ago that I wrote how we were going to lose 300 former judges now acting as Judicial Hearing Officers as part of $100 million in cutbacks. The budget deal, however, now advances those cuts to $170 million.

According to this New York Law Journal article today, the pain will be far worse than previously expected, and  Chief Administrative Judge Ann Pfau said she doesn’t yet know where the cuts will come from.

My prediction: The civil justice system will slow to a crawl, and judges will become overwhelmed even more so than now. Retiring judges won’t be replaced. Staff will be cut. The judiciary will try to force litigants into less of the time-consuming motion practice that sucks up much of the limited resources. Many of the motions are merely “money motions” that were done to drive billable hours. Others are for a variety of recalcitrant discovery issues. Judges may be urged to deal more harshly, in terms of sanctions, in order to discourage that type of conduct.


March 2nd, 2011

New York Sacking 300 Judges (Or Is It Only A Forced Sabbatical?)

New York Chief Judge Jonathon Lippman, tasked with the miserable job of cutting 300 judges loose.

New York Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman released a statement earlier today stating that, due to budget cuts, there may be substantial layoffs in the state court system. And it now appears that all of the state’s Judicial Hearing Officers will be be taking a forced sabbatical. There are 300 former judges that work in this role that will be taking a vacation from which they may not return.

The courts had previously submitted a budget to the state for $2.7 billion. As a result of a request by Gov. Andrew Cuomo, however, that is now being cut by $100 million. According to Judge Lippman’s statement this morning:

As a result of this review, we are taking further austerity measures for the coming fiscal year that will result in additional savings of $100 million to the State. We will achieve this target through continued reductions in the court system’s workforce, including a hard freeze on hiring, layoffs of administrative and other non-operational personnel if necessary, and programmatic efficiencies — re-examining all non-personal service expenditures, including programs such as Judicial Hearing Officers, Town and Village Court assistance, the Judicial Institute, legal reference materials, and the like.

In an interview with the New York Law Journal after the announcement earlier today, Judge Lippman merely speculated about the loss of the JHO program:

He said in the interview that the entire judicial hearing officer program might have to be scrapped. The program employs some 300 retired judges who issue orders of protection, preside over jury selection in civil trials and otherwise relieve judges of some duties.

JHOs are paid $300 per day for their services and the program costs the state about $7 million a year, according to [Chief Administrative Judge Ann]  Pfau.

But the information that I am getting out of the Bronx County Bar Association is that not only is this a done deal, but it will take place on April 1st.  Whether this will be a one year hiatus or a complete closing of the program remains unknown.

Perhaps the most notable of the Judicial Hearing Officers that may be forced into retirement is 82-year-old Ira Gammerman, a former Supreme Court Justice that hit the retirement, and a long time fixture downtown at 60 Centre Street (easily one of the most famous courthouses in the nation). He acts there now in his JHO status as a sort of judicial traffic cop, sending lawyers out to pick juries when their cases come up and then assigning them to judges for trial after selection. And woe unto the lawyer who isn’t prepared, as he has a reputation of dismissing their cases on the spot. He also has continued to try cases he finds interesting if he can get the consent of the parties.

He hasheard from the best (and worst) trial lawyers in the city. He has no problem seizing the questioning from the lawyers to cut to the chase, and his familiar squint into his laptop as he sits on the bench is a familiar site to the thousands of lawyers and litigants that have passed through his carpeted courtroom. Both my father and I have taken cases to verdict in front of him (as has most anyone who is anyone who tries cases in this city).

Judge Gammerman has heard numerous high profile cases, often complex medical malpractice and commercial matters. He dismissed a large part of the Dan Rather v. CBS defamation case and tossed the case of Rosie Donnell against her publisher of Rosie magazine, where they had sued each other.  Joan Collins and Leona Helmsley have appeared before him, and just month ago, the younger brother of the Sultan of Brunei came to defend his x-rated statues.  Perhaps most famously, he told Woody Allen to “stop talking” because, “‘I’m the director here.”

The effect of losing the JHOs is sure to slow down the administration of justice, as judges are forced to tend to more ministerial matters that the JHOs were previously handling.

What will happen to all of these former judges? Someone will return to private practice in big firms as potential rainmakers. But my guess is that most will pour into the private arena of alternate dispute resolution. Whether they come back in a year — if  the JHO program is restarted — remains to be seen. But it is clear that our judiciary is about to see a significant brain drain and the state’s litigants and bar will see a slower administration of justice.


April 19th, 2010

The SCOTUS Nominee and The Tissue Box Test (Revisited)

A year ago I wrote my thoughts on what I’d like to see in a Supreme Court justice to replace David Souter in The SCOTUS Nominee and The Tissue Box Test. This probably doesn’t come as a great surprise, but one year later, with Justice John Paul Stevens having now announced his retirement, those thoughts haven’t changed.

I was looking for someone who had fought uphill battles for people in need. Supreme Court short lists always seem to be filled with those from academia, BigLaw or former prosecutors. And traditionally missing were those who had stood in the well of the courtroom with people whose bodies or spirits were broken or severely compromised.

In fact, it was that desire to find out what kind of people that Justice Sotomayor had represented that led me to find, last year, that she had named her solo law firm Sotomayor & Associates. While others were interested in how she would rule on hot-button political issues, I wanted to know who she had stood up for. I wasn’t looking for the minor ethics lapse that I stumbled upon, and wasn’t intending to cause a small kerfluffle, I just wanted to know who she had actually done work for.

I was heartened when I read in The New York Times last week that, when a clerk was interviewing for a clerkship, Justice Stevens pulled a plaque off his wall that honored him with a small town lawyer award. Not because he was a small town lawyer, but for the kinship he felt. The short piece, part of a longer piece on memories of Justice Stevens, read:

DURING my clerkship interview with Justice Stevens, we talked about our hometowns. When I mentioned that I had grown up in a small town near Seattle, he leapt from his chair and pulled a plaque off the wall. It read: “Small Town Lawyer of the Year: Associate Justice John Paul Stevens.” It had been given to him a few years before by the bar association of Poulsbo, Wash.

At the time, I was puzzled that the award was so meaningful to him. I shouldn’t have been. Although Justice Stevens has always practiced law at the highest levels of the profession, his modesty would make him feel right at home in a place like Poulsbo. He may not have actually been a small town lawyer, but he was definitely a kindred spirit.

While that doesn’t mean that Stevens fit the definition of what I would be looking for, at least his heart was in the right place.

Will our next SCOTUS nominee know what it’s like to struggle on behalf of the desperate and downtrodden, in at least one part of a distinguished career? One can only hope.


  • Stevens Retiring: Time For A Trial Lawyer (Norm Pattis)

    …The current court is composed almost exclusively of lawyer’s whose blood runs pure blue with Ivy League pedigrees, big law experience and years laboring in the vineyards of the nation’s federal appellate courts. Altogether absent from the court is anyone with substantial experience in the trenches where legal abstractions have the most direct impact on the lives of ordinary Americans…

  • Obama’s Diverse Shortlist (Orin Kerr)

    …Even if Obama decides on a former academic, he has to pick which kind of resume he wants. For example, does he pick the woman who was a full-time law professor at the University of Chicago from 1981 to 1993 (Wood)? Or does he pick the woman who was a full-time law professor at the University of Chicago from 1991 to 1995 (Kagan)? Obviously, these are big choices…

  • Birth Of The Trench Lawyer Movement (Scott Greenfield, 2009)

    …In the trenches, we experience life, along with the huddled masses who care far less about whether a judge is a constructionist or originalist or texturalist. We know the consequences of decisions, together with the consequences of delayed decisions. Our view is ground level, and our understanding of how badly the law can hurt comes from holding the hands of the maimed. We know that people lie, cheat and steal, but we know that isn’t limited to the defendants. We have philosophies, but we live realities…