Milton Mollen.
Milton Mollen. (Rick Kopstein)

Milton Mollen, a World War II veteran, a former presiding justice of the Appellate Division, Second Department, and chair of a historic committee that uncovered corruption within the New York City Police Department, has died. He was 97.

Mollen passed away peacefully of natural causes at his Manhattan home on Monday, said his son, Scott Mollen, a longtime partner at Herrick Feinstein.

Milton Mollen was a pillar of New York’s legal community for more than 60 years, holding positions in public service for more than 40 years and gaining a reputation statewide for both his integrity and soft-spoken consistency.

“He was a consummate gentleman, and an inspiration to many lawyers,” said Mark Zauderer, a senior partner at litigation boutique Flemming Zulack Williamson Zauderer, on Monday evening after learning of Mollen’s death. “He really exemplified the concept of a lawyer-public servant, who not only excelled as a lawyer, but who held important leadership positions in the community, such as deputy mayor of New York City and leading what came to be known as the Mollen Commission,” which laid bare corruption in the nation’s largest police department and recommended reforms.

“I had the opportunity some years ago [in 1999] to work closely with him as co-counsel for a client,” Zauderer continued, “and we traveled the state together on puddle jumpers [small planes] and to courthouses in remote parts of the state, and wherever we appeared together in court, just to be with him paved the way, because he had respect in communities large and small.”

“He was soft-spoken, his comments were always to the point and he was never gratuitously critical of people,” Zauderer said. “He plainly had a warm heart.”

Mollen was born in Brooklyn in 1920 and grew up in the borough’s east New York section. Following the attacks at Pearl Harbor in 1941, he joined the Air Force and fought in World War II.

He was one of the first Americans trained to use radar navigation in planes, Scott Mollen said. It was a distinction. But it also earned him the duty of flying elite squadron planes in the war. They often took a front position and the pilots had a high fatality rate, Scott Mollen said.

During Milton Mollen’s deployment in the European theater, his plane was shot down over occupied France and he was taken prisoner by the Germans.

But after eight months he escaped captivity.

“When a base psychiatrist later examined Milt, who was anxious to return to combat, the doctor diagnosed the young soldier as ‘Abnormally, normal,’” Gary Naftalis, a partner at Kramer Levin Naftalis & Frankel and a friend of Mollen’s, wrote in a letter to the Law Journal about him in 2013. Naftalis began the letter by calling his friend “the wisest man I know.”

After returning to the states, Mollen earned his law degree from St. John’s University in 1950. In 1952, after time in private practice, he became an assistant corporation counsel with New York City’s Law Department.

In 1966, after an unsuccessful run for city comptroller, Mollen joined the bench when then-Mayor John Lindsay appointed him to the New York City Criminal Court.

In 1968, he was elected a Kings County Supreme Court justice. During his tenure he became the court’s administrative judge.

In 1976, then-Gov. Hugh Carey appointed Mollen to the Appellate Division, Second Department, where two years later he became presiding justice. He held that position until he left the court in 1990.

Naftalis noted that during his 14 years on the Second Department, “colleagues’ respect [for Mollen] was underscored when the Court of Appeals selected him in several cases to sit by designation.”

“In one of those cases, Milt wrote a unanimous and precedent-setting opinion on consequential damages,” Naftalis said.

Moreover, “the [Second Department] under Milt adopted a policy of giving a written opinion in every case, no affirmances without opinion, in the belief each litigant was entitled to a reasoned decision,” said Naftalis.

Scott Mollen also remembered his father’s devotion to the Brooklyn-based court.

“He cared so much about the court’s reputation that when he served as presiding justice, he reviewed every decision that was issued to assure consistency in the law among the court’s panels, notwithstanding the enormous volume of decisions,” Scott Mollen said.

Milton Mollen also authored some “extremely significant” decisions, his son added. For instance, Mollen penned the right-to-die decision in the Brother Joseph Fox case, which established guidelines for allowing a terminally ill person to subside peacefully by no longer receiving extraordinary medical care. The decision was later affirmed by the Court of Appeals.

In 1990, Mollen went back to work for the city as a deputy mayor for public safety under then-Mayor David Dinkins.

During that time, he led the Democratic mayor’s charge in Albany for passage of a tax increase bill used to fund the Safe Streets, Safe City program. The program, which was initially criticized by members of the Republican-controlled state senate as a city money grab, ultimately put more than 6,000 new police officers on the streets and created community centers for children citywide.

Writing in his 2013 autobiography, “A Mayor’s Life: Governing New York’s Gorgeous Mosaic,” Dinkins recalled Mollen’s strategy for winning over entrenched Republicans. “Judge Mollen['s] position—and he fought like hell for it in our meetings preceding his lobbying efforts—was that in order to be realistic and not engender political flak, the legislation had to be targeted. He said, ‘If we’re going to get this legislation through, it must have a section stating that the increase in personal income tax will be provided solely for the funding of Safe Streets, Safe City; it will be segregated, it will not go into the general treasury, and it will be used for no other purposes.’”

Dinkins further recalled heeding Mollen’s advice when he decided the head of criminal justice in his administration would be a deputy mayor. Mollen had told him the title was necessary to empower the role.

“I spent a good part of the weekend considering the judge’s advice,” the former mayor wrote, adding, “New York was in [Mollen's] bones—he understood and knew it intimately.”

Then in 1992, Dinkins appointed Mollen, who had left the deputy mayor post, to lead the city’s Commission to Investigate Allegations of Police Corruption and the Anti-Corruption Procedures of the Police Department. The group is now better known as the Mollen Commission.

The centerpiece of the commission’s work was a scathing report released in 1994 that detailed the problems festering within the department at that time. While the commission found that the vast majority of officers were “honest and hardworking,” the department was riddled with pockets of corruption and some officers were themselves taking part in crime, including committing robbery and burglary; selling stolen drugs and guns to criminals; conducting unlawful searches and using excessive force.

“It is clear that the consequences of police corruption reach beyond the individual act of wrongdoing to undermine the confidence of the public in its police force and the safety and reputation of the overwhelming majority of police officers who are honest,” Mollen said in his opening statement for the commission’s public hearings.

An independent Commission to Combat Police Corruption was later established by Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani based on recommendations made in Mollen’s report.

In 1995, at the age of 75, Mollen opened the first JAMS office in New York state. He served with JAMS as a highly sought-after mediator and arbitrator for several years, Scott Mollen said, and he simultaneously recruited former and current judges from around the state to join him.

Later in the 1990s, he returned to private practice, and in 2001, he joined Herrick Feinstein as of counsel. He finally retired last year, Scott Mollen said.

“Judge Mollen once commented to me that he felt that he had done many things in his life to try to contribute to the community, but the one thing that everybody always greeted him with was, ‘You’re the Mollen of the Mollen Commission,” recalled Zauderer Monday.

Wrote Naftalis at the end of his 2013 Law Journal letter honoring his friend, “For at least the past 25 years, I have had the privilege of sharing a drink or two a couple of times a month with Milt in a ‘Smokers Club’ of senior members of the bar—although most of us don’t smoke anymore. As the youngest member of the club, hearing Milt discuss cases, war stories and politics, it is a bit like I am a rookie listening to Willie Mays talk about hitting.”

Scott Mollen said Milton is survived by his sister, Ellen Mollen, by himself and his wife, Shelli, by two granddaughters, Nicole Mollen Mederrick and Lindsey Loventhal, and by three great grandchildren. All live in the New York and New Jersey area.

A funeral will be held Wednesday at 11 a.m. at Riverside Memorial Chapel, 180 W. 76th St. in Manhattan.