By Frederic Block, published by Thomson Reuters Westlaw, 456 pages, $29.95
Do you think a small firm practitioner from Suffolk County, never with a big firm, never a prosecutor and who once even wrote an Off-Broadway musical, should be a federal judge?
In his memoir, Disrobed, Eastern District Judge Frederic Block makes a strong case, although he doesn’t intend it, that perhaps all judges would benefit from such a background. Writing with a most becoming modesty, he has given us what President Bill Clinton has called “an engaging, often humorous account of his life…and a compelling introduction to the world of a Federal Judge.” Judge Jack B. Weinstein, his highly regarded colleague from the Eastern District, both sitting in Brooklyn, describes this memoir as a charming classic written with easy humor, useful to those who think the law is a mystery. And I would add this book is a unique introduction to the federal judiciary. I know of none other quite like it.
In describing how he got there, Block never seems to lose the wonder and humility of “how did this happen to me?”
For example, at different points he says:
“I once ran against Perry Duryea, the silver fox of Republicans in Suffolk. My knees were shaking.
Even though I had been President of the Suffolk County Bar and a V.P. of the State Bar, I couldn’t believe being put on a Committee chaired by the Alex Forger with members like Judge Breitel, Cy Vance, Hal Fales, Judah Gribetz, and Mike Cardozo. I felt insecure.
Can you believe Senator Moynihan spent two hours with me and I even dared to disagree with him on a point? To be a Judge, I was interviewed for the ABA by a big firm lawyer. I was somewhat intimidated.”
At his first judicial conference, his introduction took three minutes. The next new judge, Guido Calabresi, former Dean of Yale Law School, took 20 minutes. “I shrunk in my seat,” he says.
On his first day he talked to the janitor in his Greenwich Village apartment who told him: “You’re going to be a good judge.” Block asked, “How do you know?” The janitor told him: “Cause you talked to me.” You get the idea.
There is a formalism in our federal courts that some find inhibiting. Here, Block’s background as a small firm lawyer who tried civil and criminal cases for ordinary people serves him well. In many ways, he has humanized the process. Lawyers are free to move around as they question. They are not sentenced to stand at the podium. And, prepare to be shocked, he allows lawyers to question jurors during their selection in civil cases! He’s even considering allowing it in criminal cases. Block is not afraid to use humor to lighten his remarks to the jury but never to belittle a lawyer or a witness. He tells the jurors they cannot discuss the case except to tell their families that the judge looks like Brad Pitt.
He dares to wonder, and I with him, whether his practical experience “knocking around in small firm practice” didn’t better prepare him for the federal judiciary than if he had law enforcement or big firm experience.
Who is Fred Block? He is a boy from Brooklyn who moved to 77th Street in Manhattan when he was nine, went to PS-87 and then got into Stuyvesant High School, which was better than the local high school where the “tough guys would surely devour a little Jewish kid.” He went on to Indiana University and Cornell Law School. His father, a first generation American, had a small clothing business then started another business and sadly died right before his son graduated from law school.
He went to Suffolk and became a Democrat in that heavily Republican County. He got the Suffolk County legislature to conform to the one man-one vote rule by taking a case to the U.S. Supreme Court. He showed how certain Family Court judges were underpaid and got himself his first big fee. He brought a suit against Governor Hugh Carey, was involved as a lawyer in the “Amityville Horror” case and wrote a musical review, “Professionally Speaking,” which ran off-Broadway for six weeks. Yes, he does things his way.
Undoubtedly, a non-traditional choice for the federal bench. Senator Patrick Moynihan chose him even though he never made a political contribution and had, as they say, no rabbi.
Block notes that one prosecutor described his concerns about appearing before him when he was new to the bench. The prosecutor noted that most federal judges are “former prosecutors,” “pretty stodgy,’ and practiced at “large Manhattan corporate law firms” but Block was cut from a different cloth—”active in arts organizations” “often seen in Manhattan nightclubs.” (More rumor than truth.)
But his profile by the Brooklyn Bar Association written by its president put those fears to bed: Block “has been presiding with patience and distinction” and has “earned…high marks from the Court’s keen-eyed litigation bar.”
And he has won just about everyone else over. “He views the people who come before him…like human beings first,” The Wall Street Journal reported in 2008.
In the introduction to the book, Weinstein recalls comments he heard from lawyers about Block: “He has excellent legal ability.” “He is very, very, very good.” “He gets to the heart of things quickly.” “He is very scholarly.” “He is fair.” “He is wonderful…to try cases before.”
Block goes on to describe many of his big cases. But he does more than that. He uses each case to describe the development of the branch of law involved in a scholarly way. Each chapter can be read as an introduction to and a primer on that branch of the law.
For example, and I summarize here, on the issue of sentencing Block raises the problem of recidivism, lack of jobs and rehabilitation. One year 67.5 percent are rearrested. Guidelines are now only advisory. Good. “Each defendant is different and no two cases are alike.”
On the death penalty: The Eighth Amendment forbids cruel or unusual punishment; most countries including all European Union countries do not have the death penalty; the United States in 2007 was fifth in executions behind only China, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Palestine.
On guns: Felons allegedly in possession are often acquitted, despite strong evidence against them; are jurors interpreting the law as they believe just, which leads to a discussion of jury nullification. There are disturbing statistics. In 2004, there were gun deaths in: Canada: 184; England-Wales: 73 and in the United States: 11,340.
In Disrobed, Block discusses presiding over a complex securities case; recounts the Crown Heights riots resulting in a murder, a state court acquittal and a federal conviction; and of course he addresses double jeopardy.
Read about the Peter Gotti trial with the actor Steven Segal as a witness and the Limelight trial and how Peter Gatien, the owner, was acquitted of charges of presiding over a drug operation in the hottest of hot clubs. Read how in his first year on the bench Block had a hearing on the case of Kitty Genovese.
Disrobed is a memoir with substance. This small firm practitioner has proved himself. Come to think of it, Clarence Darrow and Robert Jackson also came from small country law firms.
In a blurb on the cover, Judith Kaye concludes that “Judge Block tells a story the public needs to read…and he tells it with extraordinary humor and humanity.”
And I would add that for lawyers who do or may practice in federal courts, it is a must read. I repeat, there is no book quite like it.
And I do believe that if his father who never saw him graduate from law school had lived to see it, he would have told his son: “Fred, you did good. You made us proud. You fulfilled every hope your mother and I ever had for you.”
Henry G. Miller is a name partner in Clark, Gagliardi & Miller in White Plains.