Milt Mollen is the wisest man I know.
Self-effacing, never one to claim the limelight, Milt has spent a lifetime in public service delivering even-handed justice and sound, candid and utterly discreet counsel to our state and city’s most prominent: governors, mayors, high level executives, political leaders of both parties. They all came to have breakfast with Milt. He has consistently had the courage to talk truth to power and to take on the big issues.
I don’t know if Milt was born wise. I do know he was born courageous. A sterling member of the “greatest generation,” he answered the call to duty early, enlisting as an aviation cadet after Pearl Harbor. He served overseas on combat duty as a radar navigator and was shot down in occupied France. Injured, he was taken prisoner and eventually held in a German prison camp, the same camp that was the subject of the movie, “The Great Escape.” In fact, Milt subsequently did escape. When a base psychiatrist later examined Milt, who was anxious to return to combat, the doctor diagnosed the young soldier as “Abnormally, normal.”
His meteoric rise in public service started in 1952 with his appointment as a line assistant Corporation Counsel, followed by his eventual ascension within the office to executive assistant. Thus began 60 years of dedicated civic work. With characteristic modesty, Milt likes to say he was lucky, that as a fatalist, he simply took the jobs that were offered. But that does no justice to his exemplary life of service. His accomplishments are well known; too many to list, although a few are set out on the margin. It is a little like the Passover Seder refrain: If the only thing Milt had done was to serve for 12 years as the presiding justice of the Appellate Division, Second Department, that accomplishment would have been enough; if he had only at age 70 taken on the role of deputy mayor for public safety under Mayor David Dinkins, that would have been enough; if he had thereafter only chaired the special commission to investigate corruption within the Police Department, the Mollen Commission, that would have been enough; if he had only been one of the most sought after mediators in the country, that also would have been enough. But there was always a great deal more.
I pause on just a couple of incidents. The esteem in which he was held at the Corporation Counsel Office was confirmed when it honored Milt with its first distinguished alumni award. As the presiding judge of the Second Department, Milt forged a model, collegial and cooperative institution. Notwithstanding that the Second Department was probably the busiest appellate court in the country, the court under Milt adopted a policy of giving a written opinion in every case, no affirmances without opinion, in the belief each litigant was entitled to a reasoned decision. Confronting the hard issues, Judge Mollen authored In the Matter of Eichner, a landmark case on the right to die. His colleagues’ respect was underscored when the Court of Appeals selected him in several cases to sit by designation when, due to disqualifications, the court would otherwise lack quorum. In one of those cases, Milt wrote a unanimous and precedent-setting opinion on consequential damages. His courage and independence was demonstrated when, in another such case, he was the sole dissenter.
For at least the past 25 years, I have had the privilege of sharing a drink or two a couple of times a month with Milt in a “Smokers Club” of senior members of the bar—although most of us don’t smoke anymore. As the youngest member of the club, hearing Milt discuss cases, war stories and politics, it is a bit like I am a rookie listening to Willie Mays talk about hitting. Bernie Nussbaum once said Milt is the nicest and most intelligent member of the group. I think we would all agree he is the wisest too.
Gary Naftalis is a partner in Kramer Levin Naftalis & Frankel.