I wrote a book a few years ago, Disrobed: An Inside Look at the Life and Work of a Federal Trial Judge. In it I acknowledged that most judges “only communicate in academic fora, through the formal media of written opinions and official rulings from the bench.” They play it safe, perhaps to avoid unwarranted media exposure, but probably because they believe that historically this has been the proper way for judges to act.
I do not share this view. I am part of a growing minority of judges who believe that judges have unique insights to share with the general public about the law and the practical workings of the courts. I wrote Disrobed after reading an excellent law review article which struck me as being right on. The author captured my thoughts when he wrote that “[b]ecause of the importance of law in modern society, the public needs reliable and understandable sources of information concerning our legal system. Without such information, the public cannot accurately scrutinize the legal process and correct its abuses. Unfortunately, many citizens possess simplistic insights into the workings of our legal system.”
Nowhere is this more apparent than in the lack of understanding by the public of the workings of the federal judicial system, let alone how one even becomes a federal trial court judge, and the differences between the state and federal courts.
While there have been many books written by judges, unless they are a Supreme Court Judge—like Justice Sotomayor—they have hardly been best sellers; their readership has invariably been those involved in the legal profession. So, with Disrobed, I tried to write a “user-friendly” book for the general public that was at once informative, provocative, and engaging. First, I told my personal story—from childhood to the day that I was tapped by President Clinton for the judgeship; I wrote about how it was that from hanging up a shingle in a semirural community 60 miles from New York City, a small town practitioner got to be a federal district judge in the Big Apple.
Then, I wrote about how I broke in as a new judge, told anecdotes about some of my judicial colleagues, explained how I dealt with juries and lawyers, how I sentenced criminals, dealt with death threats, and ran my court.
Finally, I wrote about the cases. In chapters titled “Death,” “Racketeering,” “Guns,” “Drugs,” “Discrimination,” “Race Riots,” “Terrorism,” and “Foreign Affairs,” I melded the law with major cases I handled. The reader got to know, for example, about the death penalty in the context of the murder trial of Kenneth “Supreme” McGriff, and the Racekteering Act came to life as I recounted the trial of Peter Gotti and his Gambino family buddies—and so on.
Disrobed didn’t get the wide national readership that I had hoped for, but it was well-reviewed by the likes of President Clinton, Jeffrey Toobin, Chief Judge Judith Kaye, The New YorkTimes, and others, and had a respectful run. I did my thing, and put it behind me.
So why am I now writing about Disrobed? It’s not an ego trip or an infomercial—though I would love to have more people read it. It is because the publisher of this wonderful paper had read it and contacted me—after finding out that I have been a West Village resident since I took the bench 21 years ago. He thought that his readership would benefit from a monthly article by someone like me, and that it would be a vehicle to continue to “disrobe” and demystify the judicial world we live in. He’s a pretty persuasive guy, so I agreed to give it a shot.
See you next month.