Judge Castel
Judge Castel (NYLJ/Rick Kopstein)

Q: How do you approach a case? Do you hold regular pretrial conferences?

A: I believe in active case management. My civil conferences are usually done around a table, and all aspects of the case are open for discussion. Attorneys can expect questions about the merits. I find it helpful to have the lawyers explain unusual or complex issues early on. Often, the interchange has the byproduct of fostering early settlement talks.

When the parties are in agreement on a schedule, I usually honor that agreement. I do not routinely refer cases to a magistrate judge for supervision of discovery and, in the vast majority of cases, lawyers are able to work out their differences. On occasion, they cannot and the judge must intervene. I try to understand the legitimate discovery needs of the parties, but I am also prepared to stop an inappropriate attempt to build settlement pressure through a war of attrition or needless intrusion.

I also find the pre-motion letter process to be of great assistance. No party should be precluded from making a motion that the Federal Rules permit. However, an exchange of letters and discussion at a conference may enable the judge and the parties to explore whether the motion is needed or the timing is appropriate.

Q: What role do you play in settlement talks?

A: To state the obvious, courts exist to adjudicate disputes yet statistically parties choose to settle most civil cases. I certainly understand that a party may reasonably decide not to settle a case. But, in the vast majority of cases, I consider it the role of a judge to explore whether a plan is in place for talks, the earlier the better. Without getting into any party’s settlement position, I try to understand which path is best for this case. A magistrate judge’s settlement assistance may be invaluable, particularly where there are client issues. In larger cases, that path may include the retention of a private mediator, of course, with the consent of the parties. On occasion, I have prodded the parties to have their own sit-down—lawyers and clients—with the additional stipulation that breakfast or lunch be served. It is difficult to be uncivil while munching on a good bagel.

Q: What is your approach to criminal cases? Do you like jury trials?

A: On the criminal side, I greatly admire the difficult job of defense counsel. They breathe life into constitutional protections. A defense lawyer has the difficult task of explaining the federal criminal justice system to a defendant and family. He or she advises and guides a defendant, who may have few attractive options.

I also admire prosecutors who are faithful to their role as “minsters of justice.” The best among them do not overreach. They acknowledge a mistake fully and promptly and take steps to rectify. They bring to the court’s attention mitigating circumstances that should be considered in assessing a defendant’s conduct at the time of sentencing.

As for juries, we have been handed an awe-inspiring system. No person can have his or her liberty taken away unless there is unanimous agreement among 12 people, who would never encounter one another in their very different lives. I marvel every time I see a jury reach a verdict. I realize that trial work is grueling for lawyers, but the judge must be jealous of the jury’s time and keep the case moving.

Q: What makes a good lawyer?

A: I enjoy good lawyering. The ideal trial lawyer is not just a master of the art of advocacy but a wise counselor to his or her client. Effective lawyers keep their eye on the prize—the outcome by way of trial, motion or settlement. They rarely present the court with quibbles over non-substantive matters. Lawyers have great stress placed on them by clients, law firms and, yes, judges. Their health and their families can pay a heavy price. It is not for everybody, but the psychic rewards can be great.

Q: What role do your law clerks play in the day-to-day running of chambers?

A: Law clerks are wonderful sounding boards and important in the crafting of a quality opinion. They become part of your judicial family just as I am part of [Southern District Senior] Judge Kevin Duffy’s. With new law clerks each year, your stories never get old. As a 20-something year old law clerk to Judge Duffy, I was in awe of him and the other giants who sat on this court. It is a dream-come-true to now sit as his colleague.

Q: What is the most rewarding part of your job?

A: I have known many great lawyers who would have made wise judges but did not have the opportunity to serve. I am deeply grateful that I do have that chance. While federal judges are known for longevity, we are all temporary custodians of this great office and should treat our service in this way. For me, the dazzling variety of matters and personalities keeps me enthused about my work. I admit to liking a challenging issue of statutory construction.

Q: Tell us about your involvement in the court’s 225th anniversary celebration.

A: On the first Tuesday of November 1789, Judge James Duane of the District of New York presided over the first session of any court under the new U.S. Constitution. Judge Deborah Batts and I are co-chairing the 225th anniversary celebration that will be launched with a special session of court on Nov. 4, 2014. Certain historical treasures will be on display, including Judge Duane’s commission from President Washington and the Silver Oar of the Vice-Admiralty Court of the Province of New York.

The year-long celebration will feature programs on the people and cases that shaped the court’s history. There will be a reenactment of the Pentagon Papers case and programs highlighting the lives of Judge Edward Weinfeld and Judge Constance Baker Motley.

Photographs by Rick Kopstein

Biographical Information

• Born in 1950 in Jamaica, N.Y.

• B.S. from St. John’s University in 1972; J.D. from St. John’s University School of Law in 1975

• Adjunct professor at New York University School of Law

• Law clerk to Southern District Judge Kevin Thomas Duffy, 1975-1977

• Associate at Cahill Gordon & Reindel in 1977, partner from 1983-2003

• Court-appointed member of the Departmental Disciplinary Committee for the First Department and its policy committee for 12 years

• Former member of the board of directors of the Legal Aid Society, and fellow of the American and New York Bar Foundations.

• Former president of the Federal Bar Council from 2000-2002, former chair of the Commercial and Federal Litigation Section of the New York State Bar Association and former member of its House of Delegates

• Awards: President’s Medal in 2000, Honorary Doctor of Law in 2004, Sprizzo Award in 2013

• Volunteer mediator in the court-annexed program in the Southern District

• Nominated by George W. Bush, joined Southern District bench in 2003

• Currently chair of the Grievance Committee of the Southern District