Southern District Magistrate Judge James Francis. Photo: David Handschuh/NYLJ

After more than three decades, U.S. Magistrate Judge James Francis of the Southern District of New York hung up his robes Oct. 27. As the well-respected Francis departs, and a new judge takes his place: Patterson Belknap Webb & Tyler partner Robert Lehrburger is set to be sworn in Monday.

“Jay Francis has been the very best of magistrate judges for so many years that the memory of man runneth not to the contrary,” Chief Judge Colleen McMahon said in a statement. “His departure leaves a huge hole in our able corps of magistrate judges. Fortunately, Bob Lehrburger’s impressive career at the bar equips him perfectly to step into some very big shoes.”

In a phone interview with the New York Law Journal, Francis described his 32 years on the bench as incredibly enjoyable, and an opportunity to be immersed in an endless variety of issues.

“You’re talking about everything from slip-and-fall cases, to civil rights cases involving systemic change to the police department or the corrections department,” he said. “It really covers a wide range of things.”

Two cases stood out for Francis as he looked back on his career. The first was the disposition of hundreds of suits over the mass arrests by the New York Police Department during the 2004 Republican National Convention. Overseeing the suits and the successful settlements meant saving the court system itself from a heavy burden, he said, while resolving the issue for individuals who would have otherwise spent significant amounts of time in litigation.

The other was another large-scale suit, this time on behalf of the Federal Housing Finance Agency in the wake of the financial crisis last decade. Francis said the “stakes were incredibly high” in a series of suits by the government against the issues of residential mortgage-backed securities. Francis oversaw the settlement of 15 of the 16 cases against some of the largest financial institutions in the world, leading to billions recovered on behalf of the government.

Francis said the single biggest change he’s witnessed over the years has been the impact technology has had on the legal profession.

“When I started, discovery was all about going to a warehouse in West Virginia and pouring through boxes and boxes of files,” he said. “Now it’s about terabytes of information on a computer.”

While he’s departing the bench, Francis is by no means done with the law. He has agreed to join the faculty at the City University of New York School of Law as a distinguished lecturer.

Francis successor Lehrburger also sung his praises. Having appeared before him as a litigant, Lehrburger said he was “incredibly impressed” by his handling of cases.

“He was an outstanding jurist,” he said. “I think he’s an extremely well-respected member of the judiciary, and I think a lot of the litigation bar will miss him.”

Lehrburger said he anticipates the transition that begins Monday to be a smooth one. An experienced attorney with over 25 years of experience handling a variety of complex litigation issues, from prisoner civil rights to international business cases, Lehrburger said he has already done a significant amount of prep to orient himself, including shadowing some of the current magistrate judges.

“I feel, actually, very well prepared to assume the role,” he said.

Lehrburger said one area of responsibility will be new to him—criminal arraignments.

“It’s not a majority of what we do, but it’s an extremely important part of what we do, since it’s often the first time, and likely the first time, the people who are brought before us are facing a judge or who have had any experience with the judicial system,” he said.

In anticipation of this, Lehrburger said he’s done a lot “to get up to speed,” such as being in about a dozen sessions where he said he’s learned a lot from his future colleagues.

“So much of what a magistrate judge does calls upon, I would say, skills and experiences we’ve had as litigators,” he said, pointing to responsibilities such as the management of pretrial litigation issues.

“That is something that, as a litigator, I have dealt with consistently in all my cases,” he said. “Now I’ll be able to look at it from a slightly different perspective, and do what is good for the litigants as well as the court efficiency.”

Lehrburger said, beyond missing the collegiality and camaraderie among his colleagues at Patterson Belknap, he anticipates no longer conducting trials as an attorney as one of the things he’ll miss most in his move to the bench.

“That was always the most exhilarating part of my job, was to actually put on a trial,” he said. “But, now as a judge from time to time I will be able to do similarly, but from the other side.”