9/11, Books, Federal Judges, Jed Rakoff, S.D.N.Y., War on Terror

The Mother Court: Tales Of Cases That Mattered In America’s Greatest Trial Court

On Tuesday evening, I returned to the offices of Wachtell Lipton, the law firm where I toiled as an associate years ago. Luckily, I wasn’t there to bill hours; instead, I attended a reception marking the launch of a delightful new book, The Mother Court: Tales of Cases that Mattered in America’s Greatest Trial Court (affiliate link).

“The Mother Court” is the nickname for the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, regarded by many as the preeminent federal trial court in the nation. In the book of the same name, James Zirin, a leading litigator who’s now senior counsel in the New York office of Sidley Austin, shares with readers the fascinating history of this top tribunal.

In a review that ran yesterday in the New York Law Journal, Thomas E.L. Dewey hailed the book as a “richly textured, immensely readable overview of the modern history of the Southern District of New York.” Last month, in the New York Review of Books, Judge Jed Rakoff praised Zirin’s “fluid prose and eye for detail.”

What fun tidbits and interesting opinions did James Zirin share in his remarks on Tuesday night?

The event was hosted by Robert Morgenthau and Jonathan Moses of Wachtell Lipton and by Human Rights First (whose events I’ve enjoyed and covered in the past). Although most famous for his roughly 35 years of service as Manhattan District Attorney, Bob Morgenthau also served as U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York — which is when he got to know James Zirin, an assistant U.S. attorney in the S.D.N.Y. for three years.

After quick welcoming remarks by Moses and by Morgenthau — who noted, quite accurately, that “the most important quality of an introduction is brevity” — the president and CEO of Human Rights First, Elisa Massimino, started a Charlie Rose-style conversation with Zirin about his book. She began with a question on many people’s minds: why is the S.D.N.Y. called the “Mother Court”?

Zirin cited the court’s age — it will celebrate its 225th anniversary this year, making it older than the U.S. Supreme Court by about two weeks — and its prominence.

“Lawyers and judges recognize it as the preeminent trial court in the nation,” he explained. “It achieved that reputation in the early 20th century, thanks to such distinguished judges as Learned Hand and Augustus Hand. As New York became a commercial, industrial, and media center, its cases became increasingly important and complex.”

These cases serve as the subject matter of Zirin’s book, divided into chapters focused on different areas of law — for example, “U.S. v. U.S.,” concerning internal-security cases like the Alger Hiss and Rosenberg prosecutions, and “U.S. v. Sex,” concerning obscenity cases. One such matter: United States v. One Book Called Ulysses, in which Judge John Woolsey struck a blow for free expression by holding that James Joyce’s masterpiece was not obscene. A divided panel of the Second Circuit affirmed: Learned Hand and his cousin, Augustus Hand, voted to uphold the district court, while Martin Manton dissented. (Manton later became the first federal judge to be convicted of bribery.)

The Thurgood Marshall United States Courthouse, home to the Second Circuit and the Southern District.

The Southern District has been the venue for many of the nation’s most important terrorism trials. Massimino asked Zirin — who actually lost his Sidley office at One World Trade Center in the 9/11 attacks — what we can learn about terrorism trials from the history of the S.D.N.Y.

Zirin noted that terrorism cases got tried in the Southern District long before 9/11. In 1961, then-U.S. Attorney Morgenthau’s office prosecuted Quebec separatists who wanted to blow up the Statue of Liberty. More recently, but still before 9/11, Mary Jo White brought a number of successful terrorism cases, one of which resulted in the conviction of Omar Abdel-Rahman, the so-called “blind sheik” responsible for the 1993 World Trade Center bombings.

Zirin’s bottom line: federal courts, including but not limited to the S.D.N.Y., are the proper form for terrorism cases. This is also the position of Human Rights First, which has repeatedly and exhaustively described the many problems with military commissions, based on its extensive and longtime monitoring of proceedings at Guantanamo Bay.

The Mother Court makes a persuasive case for the Southern District’s historical greatness. During the question-and-answer session, one attendee asked Zirin: is the court still as great as it used to be?

The court has certainly changed over time, Zirin acknowledged. The cases today are perhaps less interesting and more repetitive than in the past. The fact that so many matters settle instead of going to trial has resulted in the loss of a decent amount of drama.

But Zirin remains confident in the supremacy of the Mother Court. Recent appointments to the court have been “spectacular,” he said. And the court still gets the major cases of the day, covering such matters as NSA surveillance, terrorism, and marriage equality — like United States v. Windsor, the successful challenge to the Defense of Marriage Act that went all the way up to the Supreme Court.

“It is still the nation’s preeminent trial court,” Zirin said. “I’m a card-carrying Mother Court-ist.”

The Mother Court: Tales of Cases that Mattered in America’s Greatest Trial Court [Amazon (affiliate link)]
The Court of Courts [New York Review of Books]
The Mother Court: Tales of Cases That Mattered in America’s Greatest Trial Court [New York Law Journal]
Beach Reads For Your BigLaw Vacation [Law360]

Earlier: Is It Time To Close Guantanamo Bay?

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