Judge Patterson in 2009 (NYLJ/Rick Kopstein)
Colleagues and friends are mourning the passing of Southern District Judge Robert Patterson, whose remarkable life ended Tuesday at the age of 91.
Patterson is being remembered as a devoted jurist whose long history of public service and abiding humility made him a respected elder in the district and an inspiration to those proud to call him a mentor.
“A great American,” said Second Circuit Judge Raymond Lohier, who clerked for Patterson from 1992 to 1993. “A huge loss.”
“This is a sad day in the Southern District, he was the most remarkable judge,” said Judge William Pauley. “Fortunately, I had the opportunity to have him as a mentor for the last 17 years, literally from the day I came on the bench. I’m at a loss for words.”
Former U.S. Attorney and long-time Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau’s first job out of law school was with Patterson Belknap, founded by Patterson’s father in 1919, and he was very close with Patterson and his family over the years.
“He was an outstanding lawyer and a great human being,” Morgenthau said. “He was always looking out for the underdog.”
The life of Robert Porter Patterson Jr., a 1988 Reagan appointee, traces a long line to the history of the law in New York and in the Southern District.
His father, Robert P. Patterson Sr., was named to the Southern District bench by Herbert Hoover in 1930 and to the Second Circuit by Franklin Roosevelt in 1939, a position he held for just a year before becoming Assistant Secretary of War in 1940.
The elder Patterson was a friend of judges Learned and Augustus Hand; Patterson the younger knew the great jurists well and vacationed with their families.
Patterson flew 45 missions for the U.S. Army, Air Corps United States during World War II as a navigator in B-17s and B-24 Liberators out of North Africa and England, rising to be a lead navigator and receiving the Distinguished Flying Cross.
“He would never tell you that directly, he was very modest,” said Judge John Keenan, who preceded Patterson by five years in the District. “He never had an ill word about anybody, anytime. I’ll miss him very much as a colleague and a friend.”
Following the war, Patterson graduated from Harvard College in 1947 and Columbia Law School in 1950, when he embarked on a long career with several stops along the way to his arrival in the Southern District in 1988.
He spent two years in private practice before becoming assistant counsel to the New York State Crime Commission, did two stints as a federal prosecutor in the Southern District and then moved on to Patterson Belknap.
In his years at the firm, he mentored colleagues that included former federal judge and U.S. Attorney General Michael Mukasey, former U.S. Attorney and New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and former Citigroup and Time Warner Chairman Richard Parsons.
He served as president of the New York State Bar Association and the Legal Aid Society. He was on the executive committee of the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, a member of the New York State Special Commission on Attica and a trustee of the Vera Institute of Justice.
He also served on U.S. Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s judicial screening committee, reviewing the credentials of many appointees who would later be his colleagues.
“Members of the committee eventually asked him, ‘Why don’t you become a federal judge?’ He had turned down the opportunity 20 years earlier,” Lohier said.
Lohier said the judge, who assumed senior status in 1998, was extremely hardworking and always prepared. He recalled when Patterson made the front page of a city newspaper in 1995 for rejecting a transit fare hike and ruling in 1998 that the Giuliani administration was violating the First Amendment rights of taxi drivers by preventing them from protesting regulations and fines.
“He was very interested in sentencing. He was very passionate about it and he would take extreme care and deliberation in sentencing,” Lohier said. “He hated the sentencing guidelines.”
Over the years, Patterson presided over a wide variety of noteworthy cases, including the threatened disruption of national rail service in connection with the International Association of Machinists strikes in 1989. He held a weekend hearing on a preliminary injunction in his living room.
In 1990, he held unconstitutional as applied to New York state the Helms amendment, which barred indecent message services from being available on the phone to persons under 18 without a written subscription to the services by their parents.
Patterson presided over the Salomon Brothers securities litigation in the 1990s and wrote a series of decisions in Herman Ferguson v. FBI on COINTELPRO—short for Counterintelligence Program—involving surveillance and disruption of black activists.
In PGMedia v. Network Solutions, he wrote a decision in 1999 tracing the history of the Internet, and held that since the government had a clearly articulated policy “of getting out of the way in the future and letting the consensus of the Internet community, as articulated through the new ICANN, govern this powerful yet fragile technology … it would be inappropriate for this court to take any action which might interfere.”
In 2013, he ruled the government couldn’t use photos of a gun found on a defendant’s cell phone in a federal illegal firearms case, calling the search “purely exploratory,” and sanctioning Rikers Island officials for the destruction of a videotape of a violent gang attack on an inmate allegedly sanctioned by corrections officers.
Southern District Chief Judge Loretta Preska called him “a great gentleman and servant of the court” and said he worked hard until shortly before his death.
“He was trying cases day in and day out to relieve the burden on his fellow judges,” she said.
“Just a terrific guy,” Morgenthau said. “A great loss for the bench and the bar, but also for the public. He was an independent thinker and didn’t belong to any clique or special interest. He did everything on the merits.”
“He won’t be easily replaced,” Morgenthau added. “I think I’ll miss him more and more as time goes on.”
Patterson is survived by four children, Anne Patterson Finn, Paul Patterson, Margaret Patterson and Katherine Patterson and several grandchildren. His wife, Bevin, passed away in 2011 and his eldest son, Robert, died in 2012. He also had a daughter, Bevin, who died in 1961. Funeral arrangements were pending as of Tuesday evening.