The late Jack Zeldes, founder of Bridgeport's Zeldes, Needle & Cooper.
The late Jack Zeldes, founder of Bridgeport’s Zeldes, Needle & Cooper. ()

Outside in a light New Haven rain, buds of trees were showing green and starting to unfurl.

Inside, surrounded by the old dry oak of Yale Law School’s auditorium, prominent judges, prosecutors and lawyers gathered May 8 to salute the late Jacob D. Zeldes, the man known as the dean of the Connecticut criminal bar.

It was like an affair of state.

Well after his death at 83 last Sept. 18, this event strove to distill the meaning – and mirth – of Zeldes’ life. It traced his personal contradictions and profession-wide influence. There were six speakers: partner Charles Needle; Zeldes’ son, Steven, a Columbia University economics professor; ethics lawyer David Atkins; two sitting judges; and former Supreme Court Justice Joette Katz.

In 1971, Zeldes founded Bridgeport’s Zeldes, Needle & Cooper. Superior Court Trial Referee Alfred Jennings Jr. was an original member of that firm. He recounted that “Jack” began working as a newspaper reporter at 14, in his native Galesburg, Ill., and went on to become editor of the University of Wisconsin Daily Cardinal.

After graduation, Zeldes was drawn into the Korean War. His focus shifted to law, and Zeldes took the law school entrance exam while serving as public information officer on the USS Missouri as it passed through the Panama Canal. In law school, Zeldes headed the public defender program, and after graduating from law school in 1957 kept fighting for his some of his earliest clients. A particularly famous case was a long habeas corpus battle for Connecticut death row prisoner Harold Rogers.

In 1961, Zeldes and law Yale Law professor Louis Pollack won a new trial at the U.S. Supreme Court, in a 5-4 decision penned by Justice Felix Frankfurter. On hearing this life-saving news from Zeldes, the prisoner was so shocked he literally fainted, said Jennings.

Zeldes also won a 1968 U.S. Supreme Court case upholding a Bridgeport gambler’s right to pay IRS taxes legally, without self-incrimination.

Despite his newspaper background, Zeldes avoided on-the-record disclosures about his cases.

“Although Jack would never discuss a case with a newspaper reporter, he was always courteous,” said Jennings. “He always returned their calls, told them he had nothing to say, and then would try to talk off the record and [with] schmoozing, see if he could pick up some scuttlebutt from them.”

Despite a life played out in open court, many of Zeldes’ accomplishments had to be shuttered, for professional reasons. Jennings quoted an observation from former Zeldes law partner and now state Appellate Judge Stuart Bear: “The best things Jack did, we can’t talk about.”

The Yale Law School tribute, sponsored by the Federal Practice Section of the Connecticut Bar Association, distilled many of the enduring elements in Zeldes often-encrypted career. A friendly man, Zeldes liked to give people nicknames, Jennings said, “It might have been because, in part, so many of his clients had nicknames, like James ‘Totto’ Marchetti and ‘Fat Franny’ Curcio.”

Sometimes Zeldes’ humor was intentional, sometimes it was not. “Sometimes you couldn’t tell,” said Jennings. “If someone was procrastinating, behind schedule, he would say, `Fish or get off the pot,’ or `Get your ear to the grindstone.’”

David Atkins, a former Zeldes partner now at Pullman & Comley in Bridgeport, said that Zeldes, for all his legal brilliance, was “unapologetically naïve and uninformed about much of popular culture.”

That included professional sports, Atkins said. “This led to a memorable mangled metaphor during a closing argument at trial, telling the jurors that a certain witness had ‘launched a home run into the end zone.’”

Hulk Who?

Joette Katz, who is now commissioner of the Department of Children and Families, recounted that as a young Bridgeport judge, some of the marshals moonlighted as professional wrestlers. She became a pro wrestling fan, with her kids. This led to Katz owning a desktop photo of herself being embraced by the enormous wrestling star Hulk Hogan.

During a pre-trial hearing in the judge’s chambers, Zeldes peered at the photo. “Is that your husband?” he asked.

“Jack,” Katz replied, “you’ve got to get out more.”

Three judges spoke — Jennings, Katz and U.S. District Judge Robert Chatigny. In their most serious observations, they all said Zeldes could be relied upon for wise and confidential counsel in an hour of need.

Even today, Jennings said: “When the going gets tough in Superior Court in Stamford, and I’ve heard the arguments, read all the briefs, and I take a deep breath, I have to say to myself, `What would Jack do?’ Very often the answer he gives me is the best.”

Katz saluted Zeldes’ generosity to Yale’s Arthur Liman Public Interest Progam.

It funds fellowships for Yale law school graduates to work on public interest case involving welfare rights, homelessness, racial profiling, indigent criminal defense, juvenile, immigration and many other areas, she said. To date, 102 graduates have won these fellowships. “Jack was a public-spirited and generous lawyer,” said Katz, “and the Lyman program is but one example.”

The speakers noted Zeldes’ enduring concern with Connecticut’s prosecutorial system. Early in his career, it was operating with little regard to the state’s constitutional separation of powers. In almost every criminal case, Zeldes would challenge the judge’s right to proceed.

Because the prosecutors were hired, paid and disciplined by Connecticut’s judges, Zeldes argued that this unconstitutionally violated the separation of power doctrine, and that the state’s criminal courts lacked jurisdiction. Zeldes’ argument never got any traction – until the 1980s when the state constitution was amended to take prosecutorial selection and oversight away from the Judicial Branch.

“I think it was 300 times that Jack challenged the misaligned assignment of the prosecutorial system within the Judicial Branch,” said Atkins. In court, “his batting average was zero. But ultimately his position was completely vindicated.”

Zeldes was remembered for his pithy commandments for success at the law: Be early for court. Be early at the right courthouse. And carry files right-side up.

Atkins quoted Zeldes’ 1988 commencement address to UConn law grads, in which he admonished, “The Rambo approach applies to those who view litigation as a war, those who hold a conviction that it is invariably in your interest to make life miserable for your opponent, and those who distain common courtesy and civility.

“I urge you,” he told the young graduates, “stop the rising tide of Ramboism. Don’t presume it’s always necessary to go for the jugular vein, to take advantage of every procedural gimmick the law might allow, and to embarrass the opposing lawyer, if at all possible.”

Tip Of The Hat

Atkins recalled Zeldes’ habit of smiling and tipping his hat to complete strangers on the street, and this small example of his personal rule to “pursue happiness” has recently won scientific support. The simple act of smiling – or having a smile elicited – engenders health-giving brain waves, Atkins noted.

It was remarkable, Atkins said, that this humble, courtly man “devoted his career to the grittiest human dramas of those caught up in the criminal justice system.”

Taking the broadest view, Chatigny spoke of Zeldes’ influence on the state’s legal profession: “I think it’s no overstatement to say that, thanks to his example, we enjoy a bar that’s more civil than it otherwise would be, certainly. Perhaps we can lay claim to having the most civil bar around.”

Picking up on Zeldes’ trademark smile, Chatigny linked it with the “smile of reason” that art historian Kenneth Clark discussed in his 1960′s PBS television program “Civilization” when he focused on the Enlightenment Period.

“The inspiration of [those] words was a statue of Voltaire in the French national theater which depicts Voltaire smiling a smile not unlike the one you see in the photo of Jack,” said Chatigny.

“I don’t think it’s too extravagant,” to link Zeldes with Enlightenment breakthroughs, Chatigny added. Enlightenment philosophers “pushed civilization a bit further uphill through their belief in reason, justice and tolerance. They taught that we should not burn witches, extract confessions by torture, pervert the course of justice, or imprison people for telling the truth.”

Chatigny concluded by saying that Zeldes “was a friend of mankind who dedicated his considerable talents to the cause of justice.”