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Profile: Judge Edward R. Korman

Published by The New York Sun on 2005-02-24

Sitting across the table at lunch yesterday with Edward R. Korman, it seemed only natural for a reporter to ask this question of the chief judge of the United States District Court for the Eastern District of New York:

Of all his accomplishments as one of the city's best-known jurists, of all the accolades that have been heaped on him since he graduated from Brooklyn Law School in 1966, of all the applause for his carefully crafted opinions and his rulings, including the critical role he played in the $1.25 billion settlement of the class-action suit brought by thousands of Holocaust survivors and their families against Swiss banks that collaborated with the Nazis -- in such an extraordinary career, what special moment stood out most in mind of the 62-year-old judge?

"When my father, Julius, held the Bible at my swearing-in as a judge," Judge Korman said. "He and my mother Miriam were immigrants from Eastern Europe. In fact, my father took his citizenship oath in the very same Brooklyn courtroom in which I'm now the chief judge. So yes, I would say that has been the most special moment of my life."

His father was also present in the Supreme Court in 1972, when Mr. Korman was appointed as assistant solicitor general and argued eight cases in behalf of the federal government. Julius Korman came to watch his son preside over virtually every case from the time that President Ronald Reagan named him a judge of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District -- which includes Brooklyn, Queens, Staten Island, and Nassau and Suffolk countries -- in 1985, until his death 12 years ago.

In fact, both his personal life and his professional career have benefited from the sagacity of mentors.

There was his father, of course, a man born in a small town in Ukraine and who worked as a laborer after coming to America in 1928.

There was Samuel Kominsky, a blind professor at Brooklyn College, where Mr. Korman majored in political science. "He was brilliant, a real inspiration," Judge Korman said of Mr. Kominsky.

There was Robert Morse, who befriended him while Mr. Korman was editor of the prestigious law review at Brooklyn Law School, gave him research assignments, and then, when he was named chief assistant U.S. attorney for the Eastern District, invited him to join his team as an assistant U.S. attorney.

There was Judge Kenneth B. Keating of the New York Court of Appeals, for whom Mr. Korman clerked from 1966 to 1968, an experience that he characterizes as "wonderful," one that offered intimate access into the mind of a man who'd served as a U.S. senator as well as America's ambassador to India.

There was Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who recommended him for the post of U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District, which he held from 1978 to 1982.

"I want you to run a nonpolitical office -- and if you do a good job, good things will come your way," Judge Korman recalled the senator as saying to him.

"I owe you my career," Mr. Korman said to Mr. Moynihan.

"Remember that when they bring me before you in chains," the Democrat riposted.

As he recounted that episode, the reporter asked Judge Korman if there was ever any political pressure from Mr. Moynihan or the state's political establishment concerning cases.

"Never," he said. "And if ever anyone tried to muscle me, I had the comfort of knowing that I could ask them to go to hell -- and not be fired for saying that."

The assurance of the independence and power of his office -- Mr. Korman had 74 assistants at the time -- emboldened the 36-year-old U.S. attorney to take on some of the most powerful politicians in the state. One was Joseph Margiotta, the Republican chieftain of Nassau Country, who Mr. Korman indicted and convicted him on charges concerning an illegal insurance fee-splitting scheme that favored his political cronies. Mr. Korman argued that Mr. Margiotta was so powerful a political leader that he virtually ran the governments of Hempstead Town and Nassau County, as Newsday said in an account. "Therefore, in a novel legal theory, the prosecutors argued that it was [Mr.] Margiotta, as much as any elected official, who owed a duty of honest government," Newsday said.

"There was an irony to all this," Judge Korman said yesterday. "Margiotta was succeeded by Alfonse D'Amato as the state's most important Republican kingmaker. Mr. D'Amato also became senator. And he endorsed my continuation as U.S. attorney. He was a quite a gentleman about it. He knew that I was doing my job."

Did he feel any trepidation in going after political bosses, and also organized-crime figures?

"None whatsoever," Mr. Korman said. "Nothing was going to happen to me. What were they going to do to me?"

He said this quietly, in so low a voice that the reporter had to strain to hear the words.

"I've been extraordinarily lucky," Judge Korman said yesterday. "I've been lucky to have obtained positions that were intellectually challenging and also enabled me to make a contribution through public service. After law school, everything that happened to me was a product of time and chance. Luck has played a significant role in my life."

That may be so. But fellow judges, and even defense lawyers, speak with awe about his prodigious capacity for work and his attention to details. His law clerks, who assist with the nearly 450 cases that Judge Korman typically handles each year, speak deferentially about his ability to drive to the heart of an issue. In fact, several hundred law school graduates apply for the three clerkships that the judge awards each year, and most don't want to leave when their time is up. When a reporter asked about the remarkable loyalty that he elicits, Judge Korman said, simply, "Well, I like to mentor. After all, I had great mentors. I'm sharing what I've learned in life."

What's he's learned ranges well beyond the precincts of the law.

There's the Bible, for one. Specifically, there's the Book of Deuteronomy in the Old Testament. Even more specifically, there are two quotations that Judge Korman likes to cite because not only does he live and abide by them, he advocates their essence to young lawyers, indeed to anyone who happens to be in his courtroom.

Here's one saying: "Justice, Justice shall thou pursue so that thou mayest live."

Why this selection? "The commentators teach us that the repetition of the word 'justice' signifies that the goal of achieving justice must be attained by the use of just means," Judge Korman said.

Here's another extract from Deuteronomy: "Do justice without respect to persons and do equal right to the poor and the rich."

And here's still another quotation that Judge Korman cites: "And I charged your judges at that time saying, hear the causes between your brethren and judge rightly between every man and his brother and the stranger that is with him. Do not respect persons in judgment but hear the small as well as the great."

Hearing this, the reporter felt that asking Judge Korman to elaborate might be construed as an expression of skepticism. How, he asked nevertheless, did the Biblical argot translate into contemporaneous relevance?

"What it translates into is: 'Justice should be blind,'" the judge said.

He paused a bit, twirling his fork in the residuals of his grilled fish.

"I often think about that," Judge Korman said. "My basic view is that a judge administering justice is doing God's work."

But doesn't such a judge, even with a strong faith in both the Book as well as the law, fret over his rulings?

"When you get on the bench and realize what's at stake -- people's life and liberty -- then it's difficult not to take your work seriously," Judge Korman said. "Do I stay awake at nights? Yes. I often get up in the middle of the night, my mind working on some sentence I may have handed down. I sometimes get troubled by the sentence I may have imposed."

That's when he turns to his wife, Diane Eisner, herself a lawyer and a staff member of the Brooklyn district attorney's office.

"Maybe I was too harsh?" Mr. Korman says to his wife.

"What did the accused do?" she invariably asks.

"I tell her what the case was, and then she says, 'Turn over and go back to sleep,'" Judge Korman said.

"One anguishes over imposing a sentence," he said. "You are changing someone's life forever."

And what does a judge do to relegate his decisions to the past?

"You have to try your best to put each case behind you," Mr. Korman said. "How do you move on? I always try and persuade myself that I did the best I could. I always say to myself that by being in the law I'm devoting myself to public service -- which I happen to think is the highest calling for an American citizen."

So what does it take to be a good judge?

"It takes a combination of intellect, common sense and temperament," Judge Korman said.

And what does it take to write a good opinion, the sort that gets into anthologies?

Judge Korman looked almost stricken by the question.

"When I think of a good opinion, a great opinion, then the names that come to mind is Justice Benjamin Cardozo, or Judge Richard Posner," he said. "Their opinions point to theirs being great thinkers and great writers. Or even Justice Antonin Scalia of the U.S. Supreme Court. Whether you agree with him or not, his opinions are very powerful. Reading them shows what an extraordinary mind he has, what a great writer he is."

But what about his own opinions? How does he craft them?

"First, you have to explain to all the parties concerned why you ruled as you did," Judge Korman said. "They deserve that. But as a trial judge, I'm also conscious that everything I rule on is subject to review by the appellate courts. So in a sense you're writing to persuade. But one's opinion must have sound intellectual analysis."

His rulings have rarely been reversed by appellate courts. For example, in 1995 Judge Korman found that the state Republican Party's presidential primary election ballot access rules imposed "an unconstitutional burden on the right to vote." He ordered that the G.O.P. put Steve Forbes and other candidates on its presidential primary ballots. A 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals panel unanimously upheld the rulings. In 2000, Judge Korman's ruling enabled Sen. John McCain and other contenders to be placed on the Republican presidential primary ballot.

There are times when he issues especially strong opinions. This happened after the Swiss Holocaust case was settled.

"...the bank defendants have filed a series of frivolous and offensive objections to the distribution process," Judge Korman wrote. "These objections bring to mind the theory that, as Joseph Goebbels said, 'If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it.' The 'Big Lie' for the Swiss banks is that during the Nazi era and in its wake, the banks never engaged in substantial wrongdoing."

But don't such strong opinions suggest judicial activism?

"I'm not in favor of judicial activism," Judge Korman said. "In a democratic society, unelected judges -- particularly those with lifetime tenure such as me, should act with a degree of restraint. But that doesn't mean that I won't speak out when there's an outrage -- as in the Swiss Holocaust case."

He paused again.

"And that's so wonderful about America -- it's the world's freest society in every sense of the term," Judge Korman said. "Its people are wonderful, vibrant, diverse and open-minded, people in whose veins flow the blood of all nations. America, I always say, is the light of the world."

So shouldn't a man like him be sitting on the U.S. Supreme Court?

Judge Korman looked genuinely taken aback by the question.

"The Supreme Court? It doesn't cross my mind as a serious possibility," he said. "It's a bolt of lightning."

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist

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