Thursday, July 3, 2008

A Look at Judge in Bear Case: He's Fair, Funny and Frank

After Bear, Stearns collapsed, two hedge fund managers were indicted for misleading "investors about the health of their portfolio" and "lying about their financial interests in the funds" and "of insider trading."

Unlike most federal judges in Brooklyn, New York City, the 74-year-old Judge Block isn't a former prosecutor, and lawyers say he isn't afraid to challenge the government. The Brooklyn native, they say, is a colorful and down-to-earth jurist who frequently speaks his mind – sometimes stirring controversy as he does.

Sounds good.

The Bear Stearns defendants will "get a fair shake," says Randy Scott Zelin, a defense lawyer who recently lost a securities-fraud trial before Judge Block. "Judge Block won't be influenced by the fact that this case is getting national attention." He "views the people who come before him as parties, not defendants, and treats them like human beings first."

Emphasis added.

No criminal convictions in Judge Block's court were overturned on appeal from 2000 to 2007, according to the New York-based Institute for Judicial Studies, but one case was sent back for resentencing after Judge Block was found to have improperly given a sentence that was lower than the guidelines.

Quite a record: no overturns.

The judge later wrote an opinion piece, published in The New York Times, attacking the death penalty's costs. A framed copy of the article hangs in Judge Block's chambers. Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens cited the piece earlier this year in an opinion that concurred with the court's decision to uphold Kentucky's method of lethal injection but also questioned the death penalty's benefits.

He has studied music composition and co-wrote a 1980s off-Broadway musical and several unpublished country-music songs. Judge Block frequently relies on humor in his courtroom. During the racially charged trial of Mr. Nelson, who was accused of causing the death of an Orthodox Jew during the 1991 Crown Heights riots, the judge asked a black witness to define the word "chillin', for somebody who is not a brother."

Cool: not a brother.

On a recent day in his downtown Brooklyn courtroom, Judge Block practiced his Spanish before a Mexican defendant, pointed out his summer interns to litigants and mentioned aloud that he would soon preside over the high-profile prosecutions of Messrs. Cioffi and Tannin. The judge doesn't use his gavel, sometimes doesn't wear his black robe and tells lawyers and spectators not to stand up, as is the custom, when he walks in the courtroom.

I don't like the concept of people standing up before judges: we are a democracy, and judges serve the people.

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