Boy, what a terrific book! In “The Mother Court,” the distinguished trial lawyer James Zirin gives us a richly textured, immensely readable overview of the modern history of the Southern District of New York, the so-called “Mother Court.” Though the book focuses primarily on noteworthy cases, judges and lawyers who have featured in the modern history of that unique institution, Zirin skillfully weaves into those stories his own personal experience (inside and outside of the courtroom), some social history, and thoughts on the current state of our legal system, to form a compelling and lucid narrative.
I should note one important point at the outset: the book is intended for a general audience, hence gives enough background for non-lawyers to follow the stories that are to come. This is very hard to do: try to explain too much, and the readers’ eyes glaze over, too little, and the reader is lost. To my eye, Zirin gets it just right: I thoroughly enjoyed Zirin’s crisp, clear exposition of the relevant legal rules—some of our jurists should be as concise!
The book begins with chapters giving overviews of the Southern District, Robert Morgenthau (who hired Zirin as an AUSA), the jury system and “the lost art of cross examination.” As one who had the privilege of clerking for a former Chief Judge of the Mother Court—who himself ranked that court as the more or less co-equal of the U.S. Supreme Court—I particularly enjoyed anecdotes like the tale of Judge Edward Weinfeld’s remark at a dinner where he accepted the 1985 Fordham Law School Stein Award that he thought “the greatest court in the United States, barring none, is the Southern District of New York”—while seated at a dais with the legendary Second Circuit Judge Learned Hand! Hand, however, graciously responded that “Ed, you never rendered a more solid judgment, and if from here out, all your rulings are as sound, you will never be reversed.”
To my eye, the chapter on the jury system is one of the finest in the book, not only because of its stout yet reasoned defense of the jury system, but also because of the range and humor of its references: we run across Gilbert & Sullivan, Polonius, John Gotti, an Elvis impersonator, and Churchill, among other luminaries. With typical wit, Zirin contrasts our lay jury system with continental systems, which mix judges and lay jurors, referring to the Amanda Knox trials with this aside: “The recent Amanda Knox case in Perugia before such a jury has resulted in two trials, and may now involve a third. The reader will draw his own conclusions as to which system better serves the interests of justice.”
The eight chapters that follow, organized by subject matter, are the heart of the book. Styled “U.S. v.”, they cover cases ranging from the “Red Scare” cases (such as the Hiss and Rosenberg cases) to the obscenity prosecutions (Ulysses, for example) to the libel cases (Sharon and Westmoreland, among others), with one chapter also devoted to Roy Cohn. These are stories about trials, though Zirin masterfully puts those trials in their larger political and social contexts.
Many of the issues raised by these topics, both old (Hiss) and new (9/11 attacks), are politically freighted; Zirin is not afraid to take a stand on these questions, but uniformly does so in a measured and respectful tone that is too often missing from public discussion of politically sensitive issues.
Perhaps not surprisingly, one of the real highlights of these chapters is Zirin’s portrait of the judges that, for better or worse, presided over these trials. I found particularly gripping his portraits of Judge Irving Kaufman, wrestling with the Rosenberg trial and its aftermath; of Judge Murray Gurfein, ruling on the Pentagon Papers case, which led to the highly satisfactory outcome (from the perspective of a district judge!) of the Supreme Court reversing a Second Circuit decision reversing him; and of Judges Manton and Keogh, two of the few judges ever prosecuted for official corruption.
We also run across any number of colorful (to say the least) trial lawyers plying their trade.
Throughout these narratives, Zirin intersperses observations from his own experiences, both professional and personal. For example, he represented Arthur Andersen in litigation concerning the failure of the DeLorean car, and deposed the late Margaret Thatcher: As Zirin explains: “Asked why the project failed, the “Iron Lady” gave a great answer for the auditors: ‘Because nobody bought the car.”
Similarly, in the chapter addressing the obscenity cases, Zirin mans up to the following incident: “When I returned to New York from Paris on a Dutch student ship in the fall of 1960, I had in my suitcase a well-thumbed copy of Tropic of Cancer, which I had purchased in a librairie near the Place Vendome. Customs officers seized the book at the dock.”
These small examples should, I hope, also underscore the fact that the book is very funny. Zirin weaves apercus throughout the book (“If John Gotti was the ‘Teflon Don’, Roy Cohn was the ‘Teflon Rogue’”), and is a past master of wry understatement. For instance, in discussing the outcome of the extraordinary Pizza Connection trial, still the longest trial in American history, Zirin gives us the following scoreboard: “The jury convicted 18 of the original defendants; one was acquitted, two pleaded guilty during the trial, and one was shot and killed as he walked on a Greenwich Village street.”
The closing two chapters give us, respectively, profiles of “Some of My Favorite Judges,” and Zirin’s description of the “The Court Today.” He tactfully subdivides the chapter on judges into “Some of the Best” and “Some of the Rest,” and I think it’s fair to say that each of the eight judges profiled were—for better or for worse!—larger than life personalities. The chapter on “The Court Today” summarizes the changes that digital technology has brought to Southern District courtrooms, the effects of social media on juries and the never-ending debate about the sentencing guidelines.
In conclusion, Zirin laments that “the Mother Court is losing business” to alternatives such as arbitration and mediation, that trials seem to be actively discouraged and that “the Mother Court has become as much of a claims administrator as a place where issues are presented for disposition and justice is done.”
As he notes: “The crowning glory of our legal system has been the adversary battle, with the canons of ethics requiring ‘zeal’ of the attorneys on both sides, and with assertions put to the rigorous test of cross-examination. The wisdom that comes with experience convinced us that this was the best way to get at the truth.”
Thomas E.L. Dewey is a partner at Dewey Pegno & Kramarsky.