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Court Jews in the Big Apple

Eytan Kobre

A growing, albeit unheralded cadre of Orthodox judges in New York’s court system — some of them top-ranking — might have diverse judicial styles, but they have earned sterling reputations for integrity, scholarship, fairness, and excellence in the law that do their community proud, one case at a time.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

They don’t see each other often, except at an occasional dinner or convention, but there is a definite sense of camaraderie among the significant, albeit unheralded, contingent of Orthodox judges presiding on the bench in New York’s court system.

As my whirlwind excursion into the world of frum jurists proceeded apace, a clear portrait emerged of a group of men and women who are diverse in judicial style, in the courts on which they sit, and even in the part of the Orthodox community with which they affiliate — yet are united in their integrity, scholarship, and insistence upon equality before the law.

It was the photo shoot toward the end of my meeting with Judge David Friedman of the New York State Supreme Court’s Appellate Division in Manhattan that perhaps best captures a sense of this top-tier jurist. Mishpacha’s photographer was snapping photos of the judge at a table, on which lay a gavel inscribed with the words “tzedek, tzedek tirdof (pursue justice).” The photographer asked Judge Friedman to lift the gavel and bring it down on the table.

But the judge balked.

“Just once, your honor — for the picture spread,” the photographer cajoled. But the judge politely demurred, explaining that this isn’t that kind of court; he doesn’t preside over trials, where proceedings are concluded with the bang of the gavel. It just doesn’t accurately convey the reality of what he does here in this appeals court — it isn’t, in a word, emesdig. Perhaps not sheker, but not quite emes either.

Judge Friedman’s Appellate Division is New York State’s second highest court, with only the seven-person Court of Appeals in Albany above it. This makes David Friedman, as one of only twenty judges in the Appellate Division’s first department, probably the highest-ranking Orthodox Jewish judge in the state.

How does a religious Jew, a talmid of Chaim Berlin and Yeshiva of Eastern Parkway, make his way up the judicial ladder to the rarified plane of an appellate judgeship? Through hard work and the guiding hand of Providence, of course, although Judge Friedman was never a stranger to the courts, since his father had a civil service position in the system. Those were the days when the courts were still open on Saturdays, and his father expended tremendous efforts to get away early on Fridays.

When the senior Friedman took the civil service tests, which were also administered on Shabbos, he had to be put up over Shabbos while he was watched closely all day long to ensure he wasn’t surreptitiously being given the answers. Decades later, serendipity — a fancy word for Hashgachah pratis — had it that an Italian Supreme Court judge, who had helped Mr. Friedman with his shmiras Shabbos problems, took his son David, an Appellate Division staff attorney, as his law secretary.

The position gave David Friedman a sense that the judiciary was an area for which he had both an aptitude and a penchant. And so, when the opportunity presented itself, he served first as a New York City Civil Court judge for four years, and then spent five years on the Supreme Court bench in Brooklyn. Then, in 1999 — on Purim, of all days — he got the call bringing news of his elevation by Governor Pataki to the Appellate Division, where he remains until today.

Because this court’s exclusive function is to hear and rule on appeals, it holds no trials; there is only one courtroom in the building, in which oral arguments are made and decisions rendered. But what a courtroom it is, a visual feast of classical opulence: the stained glass windows, rich wood paneling, vivid murals, and intricately designed domed ceiling.

The Appellate Division’s special character is evident even from its exterior, as one approaches the smallish yet elegant courthouse, a 111-year-old Palladian Revival–style building at the corner of Madison Avenue and Twenty-Fifth Street. But it’s the tone and tempo inside that truly sets it apart from New York’s various trial courts. No bustling flow of attorneys, litigants, witnesses, and court personnel here, filling hallways, filing in and out of courtrooms; rather a quiet, contemplative environment in which a few judges ponder subtle legal issues, research the law, and engage each other in collegial but spirited discussion of the cases pending before them.

But it would be a mistake to think that this is some sort of leisurely atmosphere in which judges can lavish endless stretches of time on a relative handful of cases per year. It’s actually been described as “the busiest court of its kind in the world,” ruling on an astounding 3,000 cases and 5,000 motions each year. Judge Friedman says this is a “place that never sleeps. At 5 p.m., when other courts are winding down, we’re just getting going.”

And it’s not just a matter of hours logged. “It’s also a very passionate place,” says the judge, “in which judges come to believe very strongly in their respective legal positions in cases. You’d be amazed at how strong is the legal and factual debate that takes place, even in seemingly dry cases of a commercial nature. This is particularly so when you’re on the losing end of a 3–2 vote and you’ve got to try to convince and win over your colleagues in a respectful and dignified but compelling way. Otherwise your opinion will be just a dissent.”

Judge Friedman clearly loves what he does, referring to the judiciary as “a fascinating profession, a very intellectual pursuit, but also a very demanding one. Some of these commercial cases are extraordinarily complex. Judges often send back and forth among the five-judge bench four or five different drafts of their opinions, refining their own views and responding to critiques in the drafts others have sent them.”

The Appellate Division has rotating benches, with each judge assigned one day each week to hear appeals. Currently, his day is Tuesday, and in order to be fully prepared, he says, “I’ll stay up on the prior Motzaei Shabbos until two or three in the morning reading the relevant cases, and a solid eight hours on Sunday. I go to a shiur Sunday morning, and then I come home, sit down in the living room and read all day in preparation for Tuesday’s session. Many times when I go somewhere with my wife, she’s driving and I’m reading.”


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