When the review copy of Eastern District of New York Judge Frederic Block’s book, Disrobed, An Inside Look at the Life and Work of a Federal Trial Judge, arrived, it dawned on me that this time I may have bitten off more than I could chew. Judge Block is not only one of a handful of EDNY judges who doesn’t cause bile to rise in the throats of defense lawyers, but is generally quite well-regarded.
What if I hated his book? Even though he’s now a senior judge, he remains active and I could very well end up before him on a case. Notwithstanding my desire to believe that Judge Block was bigger than holding a less than fabulous review against a lawyer, his anger toward Steve Dunleavy of the New York Post hadn’t abated. But then, everybody knows that Dunleavy was a pandering nutjob, and if I was going to review the book, it was going to be an honest review. Hopefully, Judge Block will consider it in light of the parsimony clause.
If you want a tell-all book from a sitting judge, replete with dirt about his colleagues and hot stories of what happens in chambers, this book won’t do it for you. The closest it gets to salacious is the passing reference to Judge Block’s post-divorce dating, and it’s not going to form the basis for a viagra commercial. Judge Block is invariably gracious and complementary to pretty much everyone he’s ever met in his life. Even the two people named in the book who he clearly despised, his former law partner and Suffolk County political boss, Dominic Baranello, and Dunleavy, are tarred more by lack of good things to say than insults. The overarching concern with judicial temperament is apparent on every page.
The first part of the book surveys Judge Block’s life as a Suffolk County, Long Island, lawyer, leaving the impression that the only question that need be asked of any Suffulk County lawyer is why they didn’t get the hell out of Suffolk County. Judge Block’s early years were marked by taking any case that walked in his door, and quite surprisingly, he was the defense lawyer in People v. Clayton, giving us the beloved Clayton motion. For you non-New York lawyers, this is the motion to dismiss an accusation in the interests of justice.
Yet he wasn’t really a criminal defense lawyer, and as his later description of an investigation he commenced as President of the Suffolk County Bar Association into impropriety in the county in obtaining confessions shows, he had no idea this was a problem until he read about it in the National Law Journal. While Judge Block tells this story to show his boldness, fairness and concern, stepping up to reveal impropriety, it inadvertently reveals that he was totally unaware of what was happening around him. Given that this was well-known by every criminal defense lawyer in the county, it’s disconcerting that he had no clue until he read about it in the paper.
In this way, the book is far more revealing than I suspect Judge Block intended. In part two of the book, about his experiences becoming and being a judge, he tells of the United States Attorney’s discomfort with him, as not being part of the prosecutor to judge feeder network, making him less than trustworthy. By Judge Block’s account, he’s rather proud of his independence, and often expresses concerns that aren’t necessarily shared by the government.
And yet, in his stories about his appointment process, courthouse security and life in the courtroom, Judge Block’s deference to the fine people in government, from AUSAs, US Marshals and Special Agents, comes across loud and clear. Having read this book, I will never argue that Judge Block should find that an agent lied. While I don’t think this was part of his thoughtful effort at transparency, what comes across clearly is that Judge Block is quite deferential to all the people one would expect. Big name lawyers and big name firms are all mandarins of the bar. Heads of bar associations are all great leaders. And the Department of Justice lawyers who held his hand through the Senate confirmation hearings are great humanitarians. Humanitarians don’t lie, you know.
While reading Disrobed, I was constrained to dog-ear page after page for what wasn’t said, as much as the implied undercurrent, that was disturbing. An example:
A customs officer once told me that only about 10% are caught. These swallowers do all sorts of things to avoid detection. I have had pregnant women, blind men, little children, and a dog before me. The poor animal almost died on the plane. The guy who came to retrieve him at the airport was arrested. Being bothered by cruelty to animals, I gave him a stiffer sentence than usual. He was upset when I told him that he would not be allowed to bring his dog to jail with him. The Drug Enforcement Agency saved the dog’s life, named him Cokie, and trained him to be one of its best drug sniffers. Lots of couriers probably got nabbed because of Cokie.
In this short quote, we’ve learned that Customs, DEA, dog hits and the pervasiveness of unstopped drug couriers are subjects you don’t want to raise before Judge Block. While I’m sure he didn’t mean to be so revealing, his sweet embrace of Cokie, the wonderful drug sniffing dog, pretty much precludes prevailing in an argument as to forensic science fraud of dog hits. Judge Block won’t be buying what you’re selling.
Yet, Judge Block’s admiration for Judge Jack Weinstein is clear, and he suggests that he’s more inclined to be a bit “mavericky” as well. His empathy for defendants is express, and reflected in his disdain for the Sentencing Guidelines and being relegated to judicial bean counter. In many respects, Judge Block uses this book as a vehicle for trying to move the lack of concern for fairness and empathy toward defendants more toward center. While he won’t say that it’s off the charts on the government’s side now, you get the sense that he wants to and, if he wasn’t still getting his robe dry-cleaned, he would.
Much of the book is a rather banal view of a very powerful position, as if written by Judge Block as told to him by Pollyanna. Then again, it’s a book by a sitting judge. What can you expect? There are some interesting discussions of the internal workings of the courthouse, and if nothing else, you learn who a judge leans on when something bad happens, and why it won’t help to challenge aspects of a system that even a mavericky judge holds sacred. And that covers almost all of it. It’s not good news, but it’s something you ought to know.
The book is an easy and quick read, well-written for the most part. The real story isn’t in the words, but what’s written between the lines. If you expect a judge to finally spell it all out for you, this book won’t do. But if you want to know what thoughts belie their otherwise neutral comments, this book is a goldmine.