Ira Gammerman

Editor’s Note: Kelley Drye partner Robert Haig made these remarks at a memorial service for Justice Ira Gammerman on May 7. Gammerman, one of the founding justices of the Manhattan Supreme Court’s highly regarded Commercial Division died on Jan. 26.

Ira Gammerman was known to almost everyone who tried a civil case in New York County from the 1980’s until just recently. A few years back, the Historical Society of the New York Courts honored Roy L. Reardon, one of the most accomplished and respected lawyers in New York State. Roy is particularly known for his honesty and objectivity and for being a real straight shooter. As he ruminated about judges, he mentioned that he lost a case a short time before in the Commercial Division here in New York County. Those of you who know Roy know that did not happen very often. He then said that the trial judge in that case did not suffer fools gladly and in fact did not suffer anyone gladly. At that point, some of the trial lawyers in the audience began to look at one another and smile. Roy continued: the judge who ruled against him had listened carefully to the evidence and moved the trial forward quickly and efficiently. Even though Roy did not agree with the judge’s conclusions or his decision, the judge was fair and unbiased and was trying to do the best that he could. What that judge had done during the trial was really all that a lawyer could hope for and was a credit to our justice system and our society. The judge Roy was talking about was present in the room that night and that judge’s name was Ira Gammerman.

That tribute has remained in my mind ever since I heard it at the Historical Society dinner on April 21, 2011. Not only because it was Roy Reardon who told the story but because what he said was so true. Ira Gammerman was everything a lawyer could hope for from any trial judge.

Judge Gammerman was smart, experienced and knowledgeable. He was honest and fair. He was immensely productive, settling and deciding large numbers of cases. He did not tolerate nonsense or wasted time from anyone. He was New York County’s own “rocket docket.”

When Judge Gammerman turned 76, he became a judicial hearing officer. As you know, that meant that he could try cases, but only with the consent of all of the parties. If one or more of the parties to a case lacks confidence in a JHO’s competence or fairness, they won’t consent to the JHO’s involvement in the case. From 2004 onward the trial bar voted with their feet in favor of Judge Gammerman. They walked down the hallway to his courtroom. They wanted his lack of bias or a personal agenda which might affect the outcome of a case, as he continued to try cases at 60 Centre St. Those lawyers voted in favor of his ability to deliver a reasonable decision at a reasonable cost in a reasonable time period. As long as you liked your case you wanted Judge Gammerman; on the other hand, if you had a weak case, Judge Gammerman would probably figure that out quicker than anyone else.

Judge Gammerman was a legend at 60 Centre St. and among the litigation bar throughout New York City and beyond. The stories about him are numerous and entertaining. Part of the reason was his truly wonderful sense of humor. For example, the director Woody Allen sued his former producer Jean Doumanian. Woody was answering a question on the witness stand at trial about whether he was currently making a film.  Woody said, “Yes, and that’s why I have not been able to be here all the time, because . . .”  Judge Gammerman interrupted Woody, saying, “Yes is the answer.”  Woody continued anyway:  “Because I have a film crew out now shooting on the streets of New York, and I am trying to . . .”  Judge Gammerman interrupted and said, “Stop talking.”  Woody flailed his arms and said incredulously, “Stop talking?”  Judge Gammerman said, “I’m the director here.”

Judge Gammerman thoroughly enjoyed his job as a judge and his time in this courthouse.  Several years ago my friend Jeremy Feinberg had hurt his leg and was hobbling along on a cane.  Jeremy was walking to a meeting in the seventh-floor conference room in this building when he encountered Judge Gammerman who was also walking with a cane that he often used in his later years. Judge Gammerman immediately exclaimed “En garde” and proceeded to engage Jeremy in serious swordplay with their respective canes.

Judge Gammerman was not perfect. His intense desire to move cases to resolution and his impatience with lawyers unprepared to go forward left him unsympathetic to an easily granted continuance. Even if he relented to your sad tale that you could not possibly pick tomorrow at 10 a.m. because of some unanticipated calamity, he would give you that avuncular smile and say, “Ok then we’ll start at 2.”

Another of Judge Gammerman’s quirks was his repeated comment that he “has no rules.” That claim almost always elicited a laugh from the audiences which Judge Gammerman addressed because while he had few rules you always knew what you were getting.

Despite these minor imperfections, Judge Gammerman did his best and his best was very good indeed. Many lawyers and others have said that Judge Gammerman was the best trial judge in Manhattan or in New York City or in New York State. Some have even said that he was the best trial judge in the United States.

I will end these remarks by speaking from the perspective of lawyers who have been involved with the Commercial Division for the past 24 years. Judge Gammerman was one of the four founding judges of the New York County Commercial Division in 1995. Hundreds of people have expended huge amounts of time and effort to try to make the Commercial Division as good as it can be. When we started we needed great judges on which to build a great court.  Judge Gammerman was one of the pillars we rested on. Those efforts have been successful beyond our wildest dreams when we started. The Commercial Division is literally world famous and approximately 60 countries have sent delegations of judges to meet with the Commercial Division Judges at 60 Centre St. and to learn from their experience. We still have wonderful judges in the Commercial Division, a highly experienced and sophisticated commercial bar, and, with apologies to Judge Gammerman, rules and procedures which maximize efficiency and improve the quality of judicial decision making. The Commercial Division also has the rock-solid support and strong enthusiasm of the business community throughout New York State. We are not shy about touting the accomplishments and capabilities of the Commercial Division. Yet, when all is said and done, one of the proudest boasts that any of us can ever make about the Commercial Division is that Ira Gammerman was a Judge of our commercial court for many years. We are all grateful to Ira for what he taught us and gave us and we miss him very, very much.