Judge Robert Sweet. Photo by David Handschuh/NYLJ

The Southern District of New York mourned the loss of one of its own Monday, as personnel at the courthouse learned of the death of U.S. District Judge Robert Sweet over the weekend. He was 96 years old.

In a note to colleagues, Chief Judge Colleen McMahon said Sweet passed away “suddenly and quietly” in his sleep at his ski home in Sun Valley, Idaho.

“If ever there was a man of whom it could be said, ‘He lived until he died,’ it was Bob Sweet,” McMahon wrote.

Sweet, who’s served in a senior status at the court since 1991, had been cracking jokes at a senior judges’ committee meeting less than two weeks ago, according to McMahon, who noted he was hard at work on dozens of cases at the time of his passing.

An avid figure skater, McMahon said Sweet had “quite recently” been spotted at an ice skating rink by a friend.

“Sharp of mind, quick of wit and irrepressibly full of life, he will and should be the role model for us all,” she wrote. “Let us remember with affection and no little wonder this most amazing of men and dedicated of judges.”

Sweet joined the federal bench in April 1978, after being nominated by President Jimmy Carter. A Yonkers native, he served in the navy during World War II, and joined the Manhattan U.S. Attorney’s Office in 1953.

During the administration of former New York City Mayor John Lindsay, Sweet served as executive assistant to the mayor before becoming deputy mayor from 1966 to 1969, where he helped handle unrest over the administration of the city’s school system.

After departing City Hall, Sweet became a partner at Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom ahead of his nomination by Carter.

As a judge, Sweet made his opposition to the policing and sentencing regimes under the so-called war on drugs. In 1988, he declared the federal sentencing guidelines for drug offenses unconstitutional, only to have the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit reverse his decision.

“The idea of using the criminal law to deal with something which is basically a health problem, basically an education problem, I think that that’s a bad mistake in public policy,” Sweet said in a 1999 interview. “But then when you heighten that with the draconian penalties, which we’ve had since 1984 and seem to be increasing, that just makes the situation worse.”

Despite his long-standing senior status, Sweet continued to take part in high-profile cases. In 2005’s New York Times v. Gonzales, for example, the judge allowed the newspaper to keep phone records for reporter Judith Miller out of reach from federal prosecutors at the height of the war on terror. The Second Circuit ultimately reversed Sweet’s decision.

Sweet was handling one of the civil lawsuits against former Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein in the Southern District at the time of his death, along with a number of other cases.

Information on funeral arrangements was not immediately available.


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