Books, Federal Judges, Reader Polls

An Afternoon With Judge Frederic Block, Author of ‘Disrobed’

Judge Frederic Block (E.D.N.Y.)

It’s hard out here for authors of judicial memoirs who are not named Sonia Sotomayor. Just ask Judge Frederic Block (E.D.N.Y.), a federal trial judge in Brooklyn since 1994 and the author of an appealing new book, Disrobed: An Inside Look at the Life and Work of a Federal Trial Judge (affiliate link). In Disrobed, Judge Block describes his surprising rise from small-town Long Island lawyer to Article III aristocracy, where he has presided over cases involving the Crown Heights riots, Kitty Genovese, mob boss Peter Gotti, and other headline-making subjects.

The book has received several favorable notices. Writing in the New York Times, Sam Roberts described Disrobed as an “engaging” book that provides “a rare look behind decision-making on the federal bench.” Over at Simple Justice, Scott Greenfield called the memoir a “well-written,” “easy and quick read,” by a “quite well-regarded” judge. I’ve read the book myself, and I concur with Roberts and Greenfield.

But even though the book has sold well, exceeding the expectations of its publisher, Thomson Reuters, Disrobed hasn’t attained the bestselling status of Justice Sotomayor’s My Beloved World (affiliate link). And this makes Judge Block a little sad, as he confessed to me when I recently visited him in chambers.

Especially because Judge Block came painfully close to what would have been a big, big break….

No, not selection for Oprah’s Book Club, but perhaps the next best thing (at least for authors of books that don’t involve women overcoming adversity). Last August, Judge Block was scheduled to be interviewed by Stephen Colbert on the widely viewed Colbert Report. Because of the show’s large, hip, book-buying audience, the Colbert Report is generally regarded as one of the top publicity channels for authors of serious books. Legal luminaries who have recently appeared on the show include Justice Sonia Sotomayor, Emily Bazelon, and Jeffrey Toobin (who, incidentally, blurbed Disrobed).

Judge Block was all set to appear on the show. The date was selected. He had to send in copies of his book to the producers. They asked him how many tickets he wanted for the taping.

Then he got bumped — a not-uncommon occurrence in the world of television. He was given a new date to appear, October 2. The producers asked for additional copies of Disrobed, which Judge Block dutifully sent their way. They again asked him how many guests he expected to bring.

And then, on September 22, he got bumped again. The first Obama/Romney debate was scheduled for October 3, and the show’s producers wanted to have a segment related to the presidential debate.

Sadly, after getting bumped a second time, Judge Block was not rescheduled. When he inquired about the possibility of a new date, the producers told him they “can’t commit at this time” to having him on the show.

Now Judge Block wonders what he should do with the giant gavel that he got for Stephen Colbert, which he was going to present to Colbert on the air. The gavel reads, “Dear Stephen, Thank you for having me on your show. All My Best, Fred Block.” Check it out (click to enlarge):

You can get a better sense of the gavel’s size when you see Judge Block holding it aloft:

Readers, let’s play law clerk and advise Judge Block. Here is a poll based on four options the judge shared with me:

What should Judge Block do with the gavel he got for Stephen Colbert?

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So Judge Block is disappointed he didn’t make it on the show, which would have offered him a great platform for promoting his book. But let’s not dwell on the negative.

Even though he didn’t make Colbert, he has been able to discuss Disrobed in interviews with radio stations in Chicago, San Francisco, and New York (on the Brian Lehrer Show). The book has been written about in the New York Times, New York Daily News, and Newsday. Excerpts have appeared in the Huffington Post. The book has sold several thousand copies, a very respectable performance for a first book, and Judge Block has received fan mail from lawyers and non-lawyers across the country who have enjoyed Disrobed.

Why did Judge Block decide to write a memoir in the first place?

“The public has an abject lack of information about the judiciary,” he said, explaining that his behind-the-scenes account of his career as a judge, handling high-profile cases arising out of such events as the Crown Heights riots, the Kitty Genovese murder, and Peter Gotti’s career in the Mafia, is intended to fill this gap. “I’ve had some wonderful experiences on the bench that I wanted to share.”

Judge Block had been thinking about writing a book for years. He wrote a proposal, which he tinkered with and revised on and off over the years. But once the proposal was accepted by his publisher, the actual writing process was fast — about eight months from proposal to full manuscript. Said Judge Block, 78, “When you’re my age, you’ve got to write fast!”

Turning from book publishing to law, I asked Judge Block what led him to law school. After graduating from Indiana University in 1956, he went to Cornell Law School, from which he graduated in 1959.

“I didn’t make any profound decision,” he explained. “It was just a gravitational pull.” In other words, he didn’t have a clear idea of what he wanted to do with his legal education — and that wasn’t a problem back then, when law school cost a fraction of what it does today.

After an appellate clerkship in the New York State judiciary, he joined a small firm in Long Island, the community in which he practiced before joining the bench. Why did he choose that path instead of working for a large law firm in Manhattan?

“Again, I didn’t put a lot of profound thought into it,” he said. “I didn’t feel I would fit in well in that big firm world.” The partners he initially worked for in Long Island convinced him that it would be a good place to build a legal career.

And it was. For the next 33 years or so, Fred Block had a colorful and diversified career as a small-firm lawyer and later a solo practitioner. He handled civil and criminal cases, trial work and appellate work. He argued before the United States Supreme Court. He represented “Judge Judy” back when she was Judge Judith Sheindlin of Manhattan family court.

In July 1994, on the recommendation of Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Block was nominated to the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York by President Bill Clinton (who also blurbed Disrobed). By September of that year — the confirmation process worked a bit more swiftly back then — Fred Block became Judge Block.

Some judges miss their days as practicing attorneys. After almost 20 years on the bench, does Judge Block?

“I wouldn’t go back,” he said. “I can’t say that I miss it. I was getting burnt out in private practice. I was tired of making wealthy people wealthier. I really wanted to be doing something different by the time I was 60.”

I asked Judge Block about some of his biggest cases as a judge. One of his most difficult cases was the prosecution of Lemrick Nelson for violating the civil rights of rabbinical student Yankel Rosenbaum, arising out of the Crown Heights race riots of August 1991. There was a double jeopardy issue involved because Nelson had previously been acquitted of murder in state court. Emotions ran high, with the mothers and other relatives of both men in the courtroom for the proceedings. The press covered the case closely as well. “Add this all together, and it was a handful to manage.”

Another challenging case was the prosecution of Peter Gotti, boss of the Gambino crime family. But that trial had its entertaining moments as well (like the time that Judge Block’s girlfriend, Betsy, was mistaken for a Mob mistress).

The matter he’s most proud of: the 2008 case involving two Egyptian-born men on a plane, in which Judge Block ruled that it was wrong to arrest the men on account of their ethnicity: “perceived ethnicity alone cannot give rise to reasonable suspicion or probable cause.”

Longtime Above the Law readers may remember Judge Block best for another case from 2008. In March 2008, a knife-wielding defendant, Victor Wright, attacked a federal prosecutor, Carolyn Pokorny, in the middle of a sentencing hearing. In my story about the incident, I jokingly suggested that Judge Block, who fled the courtroom when the attack started, should have whacked Wright into submission with a gavel. Judge Block explained to me that he left the courtroom in order to summon courthouse security. (This melee resulted in an amazing transcript, featuring such lines as “Whereupon there is screaming.”)

But famous cases like these — “obituary cases,” as Judge Block calls them, because they’ll show up in a judge’s obituary — are the exception rather than the rule. “We do the regular work of the court,” he explained. “Ninety percent of what we do is never in the press.”

And work isn’t all there is to life. Judge Block keeps busy with a wide range of hobbies in addition to writing. For example, he writes music and lyrics (and keeps a keyboard in chambers for this purpose). In 1984, he wrote the music and lyrics for “Professionally Speaking,” a humorous musical about doctors, lawyers, and teachers, which enjoyed a short off-Broadway run.

Judge Block has had a remarkable, and remarkably successful, career as a lawyer and judge. But the legal profession has changed greatly since he graduated from law school in 1959. What would he say to a young person thinking about law school today?

“I’m a passion person,” the judge said. “If you have a passion for law, do it. If you don’t love the law, don’t do it. I see so many people who are not happy in the law; they hate it. But if you’re passionate about the law, you’ll be successful.”

Disrobed: An Inside Look at the Life and Work of a Federal Trial Judge [Amazon (affiliate link)]
Book Review: Disrobed by Judge Frederic Block [Simple Justice]
Exploring a Lyricist and a Brooklyn ‘Bohemia’ [New York Times]
Longtime Brooklyn Federal Judge Frederic Block writes a book, ‘Disrobed’ [New York Daily News]
Judge’s book gives an insider’s view of life on the bench [The Villager]
Judge Frederic Block pens book about life, work [Newsday (sub. req.)]
‘Disrobed’ Offers Behind-the-Scenes Look at Life on the Bench [New York Law Journal (sub. req.)]

Earlier: An Afternoon With Jeh Johnson, General Counsel of the Defense Department
An Afternoon With Ed Hayes, Celebrated Litigator and Memoirist

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