As the state court system adjusts to the departure of Chief Judge Judith S. Kaye, it faces another imminent challenge: filling the vacancy left by recently retired Manhattan Supreme Court Justice Jacqueline W. Silbermann, who held two top administrative posts while continuing to hear cases.
Justice Silbermann, who stepped down last month after 25 years on the bench, served as both statewide administrative judge for matrimonial matters and as the administrative judge in charge of civil cases in Manhattan. Additionally, she remained an active judge who oversaw a trial calendar, placing her in the unique position of an administrator who also spent considerable time on the bench.
“I have been one of the few administrative judges who have stayed in the courtroom,” she said in a recent telephone interview from her Florida vacation home. Justice Silbermann attributed her desire to stay involved with both administrative and trial work to a deep-seated love for the law and its daily operations.
“That’s what I became a lawyer for,” she said. “I liked to be involved in the court and the business of the courts.”
She said that her 2001 appointment as administrator of civil cases at 60 Centre St. was something she did not seek but felt “privileged” to receive. She called the last eight years “the best” of her career. She also fondly recalled the matrimonial side of her job, where she exercised statewide oversight starting in 1997.
“I loved [matrimonials] because it is obviously a field that I have become an expert in and I was a generalist when I got on the court,” she said. “The [experience] has served me well.”
Justice Silbermann will carry that experience this month to her new role as of counsel in the New York office of Philadelphia-based Blank Rome ( NYLJ, Oct. 15).
A 1972 graduate of Fordham University School of Law, she began her legal career as a commercial litigator at Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom. It was there, she said, that she accumulated the knowledge that would serve her well in overseeing the Commercial Division of Manhattan Supreme Court decades later.
“I know a lot of the commercial attorneys were a little concerned that I would not have the respect of the division,” she said of the part, which was created on an experimental basis in 1993 to stem the flow of business cases to federal, rather than state courts. “I think I have maintained a healthy respect for the division.”
She added that if she could do it all over again, she wished she “could have raised the level of respect” for matrimonial judges to the same level that their Commercial Division counterparts command from the bench and the bar. Matrimonial practice is still viewed as “women’s work,” she said, because “people tend to forget the commercial aspect of it.”
Focusing on the overlap between commercial and matrimonial litigation has made her a better judge, she said. She said a straightforward business case is like a “commercial case-minus,” meaning it lacks the valuations, custody or other issues that arise in a matrimonial dispute. A matrimonial matter is a “commercial case-plus” the additional legal issues, like maintenance or child support.
Justice Silbermann explained that she “always liked numbers but I love people.”
She added, “If you can take a family in crisis and somehow put it together and talk to the people, I felt that I had a real feel for that,” she said. “It gave me a certain kind of satisfaction that true commercial litigation would not.”
Fairness on the Bench
Practitioners praised Justice Silbermann’s approach as a judge.
“Generally speaking the [matrimonial] practice has become more complex and the ability of the judiciary to deal with it has had to grow in terms of the business, financial and tax issues that arise,” said Peter Bienstock, a partner in the Manhattan firm Cohen Hennessey Bienstock & Rabin.
In an interview, Mr. Bienstock said Justice Silbermann was “leading the way” by example.
“There is no matrimonial judge who is more conversant with the commercial issues than she,” he said. “The fact that she had experience in the Commercial Division was invaluable to us.”
Norman M. Sheresky, a Manhattan matrimonial attorney, recalled the numerous times he had appeared before Justice Silbermann. He said he knew that if she was trying the case, the outcome would be just.
“I knew her for years and years and I liked appearing before her but I knew I was not going to get any particular break,” said Mr. Sheresky, of Sheresky, Aronson, Mayefsky & Sloan. “She may have given me an adjournment but when it was time to call it she called it fairly. The lawyers that won or lost in front of her, including me, will all tell you that they got a fair deal.”
The even-handed judicial temperament stemmed from an encyclopedic knowledge of the statutory law, said Susan L. Bender, of Bender Burrows & Rosenthal.
“The devil is in the details and [Justice Silbermann] knows every aspect of the law,” Ms. Bender said. “She can take a look at a CPLR provision on discovery and tell you exactly why or why not that section does not apply.” Ms. Bender added that there “are no accolades high enough” for the departing judge.
Politically Sensitive Cases
New York City Corporation Counsel Michael A. Cardozo called Justice Silbermann the ideal administrator, one who worked “tirelessly, frequently behind the scenes, to ensure that the court was functioning efficiently and that litigants were treated fairly.”
Mr. Cardozo pointed out that she personally handled politically sensitive, high-profile cases, like the litigation stemming from the arrests during the 2004 Republican National Convention and the September settlement of a 25-year-old case involving the homeless’ rights to shelter.
The cases Justice Silbermann calls “hot potatoes” include her 2005 ruling that the state was illegally holding a dozen convicted sex offenders who had served their prison terms in a mental hospital, and allowing Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg to seek a third term through a fast-tracked City Council vote in October ( NYLJ, Oct 23, 2008).
She said the decision to preside over the more contentious matters that came through the court was simple: She was not looking to ascend to a higher court or seeking re-election.
Justice Helen E. Freedman, a Commercial Division judge prior to her July appointment to the Appellate Division, First Department, was one of several judges who petitioned departing Chief Judge Judith S. Kaye to let Justice Silbermann stay on as administrator past the mandatory retirement age of 70.
“[Justice Silbermann] had the confidence of the judges and that is important when you are an administrative judge,” Justice Freedman said. “Each of us is an elected official, so being an administrator is difficult in that sense because you are not in an organization where people can just take orders.” Justice Silbermann, she added, was able to “motivate people to work hard and fulfill their obligations.”
First Department Presiding Justice Jonathan Lippman said that Justice Silbermann was the right person at the right time for the right job.
“It could not have been a better choice, she could not have run a better court and she could not have been more respected by the people [in] it,” said Justice Lippman, a former chief administrative judge for the state.
Justice Lippman said it would be up to the new chief judge and chief administrator to decide how to fill Justice Silbermann’s roles.
Acting Supreme Court Justice Saralee Evans of Manhattan, who sits in the matrimonial part, said she appreciated Justice Silbermann’s way of supporting her judges.
“She has always supported us individually and collectively . . . she has in particular given me and other judges the chance to work in fields that they feel committed to,” Justice Evans said. “Obviously, she gave great deference to the matrimonial and commercial fields. She was very committed and we are already feeling her absence.”
Despite her love for the courts, leaving the bench was a relatively straightforward decision. Justice Silbermann said she had told Judge Kaye that “when she leaves, I would leave,” to avoid any uncertainties or realignments under a new administration.
Money also was a factor in the decision. Justice Silvermann, who made $144,000 a year as a judge, said that her finances had become tighter since the death nearly three years ago of her life partner, Judge George F. Roberts.
“We used to share expenses and paying rent and paying for everything just doesn’t manage to go as far as it used to,” she said.
Most important, however, the Blank Rome job was a chance to start something she needed, something new.
“When you have suffered losses in your life it’s very good to do something that will re-energize you,” she said.
Coming back to court without the black robe will be “strange but exciting at the same time,” she said.