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Suffolk Closeup: New book reveals intimate look into federal judicial system
Frederic Block, a U.S. District Court judge from Suffolk County, has written a lively, candid and quite unusual book on his nearly 20 years on the federal bench. It’s entitled “Disrobed: An Inside Look at the Life and Work of a Federal Trial Judge.”
And it is an inside look. Judge Block provides an intimate look at how the federal judicial system operates. He takes us into major trials at which he has presided. He presents his thoughts on hot topics in chapters titled “Death [Penalty],” “Racketeering,” “Guns,” “Drugs,” “Discrimination,” “Race Riots,” Terrorism,” “Foreign Affairs.”
As the dust jacket for the book states: “Few judges, if any, have offered the public a ‘tell-all’ of their lives on and off the bench. Judge Block is a highly respected but very non-traditional appointee to the federal trial court.”
Judge Block starts the book: “So how did the outsider far removed from the Big Apple break through the big-city establishment barrier and become a federal judge?” Here he provides a series of chapters about his life and work in Suffolk, where he was considered a top appeals lawyer. I covered the Suffolk cops-and-courts beat for the daily Long Island Press in the 1960s and first got to know Fred then.
He was from New York City, with Jewish immigrant grandparents who settled on the Lower East Side. He went to Stuyvesant High School and applied only to Harvard and Cornell, both of which rejected him. So he went to Indiana University, “which opened my eyes to a new culture and reinforced the lesson that many New Yorkers have to learn: that they have to guard against becoming provincial and parochial in their thinking that New York City is the end-all and be-all of everything worthwhile.”
Happenstance after graduating from Cornell Law School led him to Suffolk. Settling in Port Jefferson, his first big case changed the way Suffolk County was governed. He represented a man with whom he became “good friends,” Bellport orchid grower I. William Bianchi who later was to become a state assemblyman. Mr. Bianchi was challenging Suffolk’s centuries-old governance by a Board of Supervisors made up of the supervisors of its 10 towns.
The U.S. Supreme Court in 1962 had issued its “one-person, one-vote decision,” and Mr. Bianchi sought to apply that rule to Suffolk. “As of that time,” writes Judge Block, “Suffolk County’s population was about 600,000. Only about 60,000 came from the five easternmost towns — Southampton, Riverhead, Southold, East Hampton and Shelter Island. … It did not take a rocket scientist to realize that the five town supervisors from the eastern towns — with only 10 percent of the population — could block any legislation favored by the town supervisors from the west.”
The judge relates how the board chairman, Shelter Island Supervisor Evans K. Griffing, complained that he was “attempting to upset a tried and proven system of government. … This is going to split the county wide open.”
As Mr. Biachi’s attorney, Ms. Block appeared before the U.S. Supreme Court. The case was won and the Board of Supervisors was replaced in 1970 by an elected Suffolk County Legislature with 18 districts of equal population.
Judge Block gives an inside account of politics in Suffolk including how, in 1960, H. Lee Dennison — “a visionary, no-nonsense engineer with an aversion to political perquisites, pomp and circumstance” — was elected Suffolk’s first county executive. The election of Mr. Dennison on the Democratic line “was considered aberrational” because “if you ever had any thoughts about successfully running for public office in Suffolk County, you had to be a Republican.”
“The arrogance of the Republican Party was pervasive,” he writes. It was a time when “new homeowners were told by the local Republican committeeperson that if they registered as a Democrat, their property taxes would be higher.”
Suffolk GOP “leaders would boast the party could elect anyone as a judge, even Mickey Mouse.” Indeed, he tells of how he handles himself on the bench remembering his “experiences” with Suffolk judges “picked by the political bosses based more on their loyalty to the boss rather than on merit.”
He was selected by Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan and nominated by President Bill Clinton to be a U.S. District Court judge. Senator Moynihan, he says, “truly believed in merit appointments to the federal bench.” President Clinton provides a blurb for the book.
It’s a fascinating work just published by Thomson Reuters.