U.S. District Judge Sandra Townes of the Eastern District of New York, the first black woman appointed to the bench in the district, died last week after a battle with cancer. She was 73.
In spite of Townes’ diagnosis, the trailblazing judge continued to work on her cases, said Eastern District Chief Judge Dora Irizarry.
When Townes didn’t come in to the Eastern District courthouse, she would have her clerks bring her work home to her and, even in her final weeks, has sought to sit on the bench one final time, Irizarry said, but did not get the chance.
Irizarry said that while her colleague was a woman of many firsts, she “didn’t like the limelight.”
“She was a very modest person, a very humble person,” Irizarry said. “But what drove her was really the ability to do justice and serve the public.”
A 1976 graduate of Syracuse University School of Law, Townes began her legal career as a prosecutor with the Onondaga County District Attorney’s Office and worked her way up to chief assistant during her 10-year tenure there.
Following her service as a prosecutor, she was elected to the bench in Syracuse City Court, becoming the first black woman to get elected to a judicial seat in the city.
Townes was elected to the state Supreme Court in 1999, then was elevated to an associate justice on the Appellate Division, Second Department.
President George W. Bush nominated Townes to the federal bench in 2003 and she was confirmed the following year.
Among her recent rulings, Townes found in August that a group of plaintiffs lacked jurisdiction to bring suit against the United Nations for allegedly causing a 2010 cholera outbreak in Haiti.
In another ruling from last year, Townes issued a 61-page ruling denying a motion by the New York City government to dismiss a civil rights suit filed by a woman who was arrested after she used her cellphone to record police conducting a stop-and-frisk encounter.
“More than anything, she was still committed to the people of the Eastern District to make sure their constitutional rights were protected and that their rights to be heard were given to them,” Irizarry said.
Townes was preceded in death by her parents, Eugene and Ruth Knuckles; and her former husband, James Townes.
She is survived by her children James Townes III of Brooklyn and Lauren Elisa Townes of Syracuse; two sisters, Loraine Adams of Alexandria, Virginia, and Helen Puckett of West Columbia, South Carolina; and her brother, Ralph Knuckles of Temple Hills, Maryland.
Calling hours for Townes will held from 10 a.m. to noon on Saturday at Bethany Baptist Church, 149 Beattie St. in Syracuse.