This year will mark the 225th anniversary of the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York in Manhattan, the oldest federal court in the nation. The Southern District, which traces its origins to the Judiciary Act of 1789, antedates by a few weeks the organization of the United States Supreme Court. One of the first lawyers admitted to practice was Aaron Burr.
Lawyers and judges refered to the Southern District as the “Mother Court.” Many think it is because of the Court’s pre-eminence in conducting trials, the extraordinary quality of its iconic judges and its reputation for being the greatest trial court in America. Whatever the provenance, the name stuck. When Judge John Keenan, who had been the president of the Off-Track Betting Corporation prior to his appointment to the Southern District bench, took his fellow judges for an “outing” at Aqueduct, he succeeded in having one of the races named “the Mother Court Stakes.”
The federal court in Manhattan is interwoven with the fabric of America. It is the court where the big trials occurred, where the big stories went down, where legendary lawyers argued and where legendary judges ruled.
Many Americans sadly take little interest in our legal system, and even less in the history and role of the courts. I say sadly because what happened in the Mother Court, particularly in the mid-twentieth century, is about justice, law and order, which profoundly affect all of our daily lives. And I would argue that what went on in this greatest of courts is a metaphor for changes in normative standards and attitudes as America emerged from the post-World War II era. Each case is like a navigational dot on a mariner’s chart. Connect the dots, and we see the directional course and distance traveled in a vibrantly evolving society.
The 1950s were a period of hysteria about Communist infiltration in American life known as the “Red Scare.” The Mother Court is the court that sentenced the Rosenbergs to death for espionage—a case that haunts our consciousness to this day. It is the court where Judge Harold Medina tried eleven Communist Party leaders for conspiring to advocate the violent overthrow of the government, and, at the end of trial, held their lawyers in contempt. It is the court that convicted Alger Hiss of perjury.
There were “dirty books and movies” cases where the government tried to prevent the public dissemination various forms of expression it deemed to be obscene, notably James Joyce’s Ulysses and the Swedish film I Am Curious Yellow. The Court freed the literature of sex from the censor’s numbing grip.
It is the court that convicted mafia figures of racketeering and conspiracy. It is the court where a defendant in a drug conspiracy case, while being cross-examined, threw his fifteen-pound wooden chair at the prosecutor, and spent the rest of the trial gagged and manacled.
It is the court where, in an overcrowded courtroom, Judge Pierre Leval presided over the longest trial in American history, the marathon “Pizza Connection” case, involving New York mafia kingpin Salvatore Catalano. The trial was a mammoth $1.6 billion narcotics conspiracy case lasting seventeen months. It was a daunting challenge to trial management, and the jury convicted eighteen men of over 100 acts of racketeering.
There were the sensational libel cases: Goldwater, Westmoreland and Sharon. Really freedom of expression cases, they challenged the media to verify the truth of defamatory content they published, in which honor and truth were either vindicated or left for further trial in the court of public opinion.
And there were the terrorist cases, many brought long before 9/11, including one brought in 1965 against three who plotted to blow up the Statue of Liberty, the Liberty Bell and the Washington Monument. The government prosecuted those who would attack our people, our monuments, our military and our institutions.
Today, the Mother Court is still at the cutting edge of American history. In 1789, when the Fourth Amendment's proscription on illegal searches and seizures was enacted, electronic surveillance of any kind was undreamed. James Madison could not have conceived of the NSA's bulk telephony metadata collection program, which Southern District Judge William H. Pauley III said, "vacuums up information about virtually every telephone call from or within the United States."
Deciding an issue that may well reach the Supreme Court, Judge Pauley came down on the side of national security, and validated the NSA program, contradicting a respected jurist in the District of Columbia who concluded that the program was "almost Orwellian" and "almost certainly" unconstitutional. Pauley held that "almost" doesn't count, and the Mother Court continues at the epicenter of the national debate.
The Mother Court represents 225 years of principled jurisprudence in a free society. We as a nation should be justly proud of its prodigious accomplishments.
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