Judge Leonard Sand
Judge Leonard Sand (NYLJ/Rick Kopstein)

Former Southern District Judge Leonard Sand, who presided over the fight over segregation in Yonkers and the trial of four men for the al-Qaeda bombings of two United States embassies in Africa, died Saturday at the age of 88.

Sand, who served 36 years on the bench in lower Manhattan before stepping down in 2013, had a varied legal career that included a series of high-profile cases.

Born and raised in the Bronx, Sand was a 1947 graduate of the New York University School of Commerce and graduated from Harvard Law School in 1951. Following law school, he served two years as an ensign in the United States Naval Reserve and clerked for Judge Irving Kaufman before joining the Southern District U.S. Attorney’s Office for two years.

He worked in private practice at what was then Rosenman, Goldmark, Colin & Kaye from 1954 to 1956 and then spent three years as an assistant to the solicitor general at the U.S. Department of Justice, arguing 13 cases before the U.S. Supreme Court. Sand returned to the private sector in 1960, where he was a partner at Robinson, Silverman, Pearce, Aronsohn, Sand and Berman.

He was nominated to the bench by President Jimmy Carter in 1978, and received his commission on May 19 of that year.

A little over one year into his tenure, Sand drew one of the most controversial cases in the district—the NAACP’s landmark lawsuit against the City of Yonkers alleging racial segregation in public housing and schools.

In 1985, Sand issued a massive opinion against Yonkers detailing racially discriminatory policies in housing and the schools, and he went on to impose sweeping desegregation remedies. He approved a final settlement of the cases in 2007, 27 years into the litigation.

“When I think about the past 27 years, I like to think that, thanks to the efforts of many people, there are families in Yonkers who are living in decent, affordable housing,” Sand said during a hearing on the settlement. “It was worth the effort.”

The housing desegregation case was the subject of an HBO miniseries last year, “Show Me a Hero,” with actor Bob Balaban playing Sand.

“He certainly was extremely courageous in the Yonkers cases,” said Southern District Judge Sidney Stein.”It was highly charged and Yonkers officials were obdurate. They simply fought Judge Sand’s orders every step of the way—his home was picketed, there were demonstrations up in Yonkers. He was under just tremendous public pressure, and he never buckled.”

In 1998, Sand drew the case United States v. bin Laden, which alleged a worldwide conspiracy to kill Americans and attack U.S. installations, including the near-simultaneous bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998.

At a pretrial hearing in June of 1999, defendant Wadih el Hage jumped over the railing of the jury box and took a run at the judge. Sand stood up and used his chair to keep space between himself and el Hage, who was then subdued by security.

Sand presided over the closely watched case amid heavy security, including U.S. deputy marshals who were assigned to guard him personally. The trial ended with guilty verdicts for el Hage and three codefendants in May 2001.

Five months later, in October, with the World Trade Center still a smoldering ruin after the Sept. 11 attacks and Osama bin Laden now the country’s chief public enemy, Sand sentenced all four of the men to life in prison.

“Judge Sand was a giant on the court,” said Southern District Judge John Koeltl. “He tried some extraordinary cases and he did them brilliantly—the decisions of the court of appeals are tributes to the fairness and intelligence with which he presided over those cases.”

In 2004, amid a wave of white-collar criminal cases in the Southern District, Sand handled the multibillion-dollar fraud case against Adelphia Communications Corp. founder John Rigas, and his son, Timothy. The following year, Sand delivered a severe sentence to both men, giving John Rigas a 15-year prison term and Timothy Rigas 20 years.

Sand was the first author of the seminal work “Modern Federal Jury Instructions,” and worked with several colleagues on subsequent editions of what is now simply called by lawyers “Sand.”

He created, and led for years, a seminar on constitutional litigation at New York University School of Law in which students would argue cases that were currently before the Supreme Court.

“He was a wonderful teacher,” said Koeltl, who taught the seminar along with Sand, the third judge to do so. “He was beloved by his students. Some said it was the best class they had in law school.”

Among his many honors, Sand was the 1992 recipient of the Learned Hand Medal for Excellence from the Federal Bar Council, the New York County Lawyer’s Association 1993 Edward Weinfeld Award for Distinguished Contributions to the Administration of Justice.

In 2014, after stepping down from the bench, Sand was recognized with the New York City Bar Association’s Association Medal for his exceptional contributions to the honor an standing of the bar in this community.

Stein, who gave Sand the association medal in 2014, said Sand was quiet, unassuming and modest, and someone colleagues would turn to for guidance.

“He was viewed as somebody who was wise and dispassionate,” Stein said. “If I had a tough problem, I’d discuss with Leonard, and others did as well. He really was the personification of an independent judiciary.”