NY 'frisk' judge calls criticism 'below-the-belt'
By Larry Neumeister
NEW YORK — The federal judge presiding over civil rights challenges to the stop-and-frisk practices of the New York Police Department has no doubt where she stands with the government.
"I know I'm not their favorite judge," U.S. District Judge Shira A. Scheindlin said during an Associated Press interview Friday. It was another moment of candor for a judge known for her call-it-as-she-sees-it manner and willingness to confront government lawyers in a courthouse where many judges — former federal prosecutors themselves — seem less inclined.
"I do think that I treat the government as only one more litigant," she said during the interview that proceeded with a single rule: no questions about the trial over police tactics that reaches closing arguments Monday.
The trial has put the NYPD and City Hall on the defensive as they justify a long-running policy of stopping, questioning and frisking some residents to deter crime. Critics say it discriminates against blacks and Hispanics. Scheindlin is not being asked to ban the tactic, since it has been found to be legal, but she does have the power to order reforms in how it is implemented.
During the trial, she's shown an impatience with lawyers on both sides when they stray from the topic at hand, and a willingness to directly question witnesses — including police supervisors — about the nuts and bolts of trying to keep streets safe.
"I don't think they're entitled to deference," she said of government attorneys. "I think some of the judges are a little more timid to maybe disagree with the U.S. attorney's office. ... They have to prove their case like anybody else. I don't give them special respect. Maybe some judges do because they came from the office, they know the people there, whatever. I try not to do that."
Scheindlin, 66, appointed by President Bill Clinton, has had plenty of high-profile cases in 19 years in federal court, including three trials of John "Junior" Gotti, the son of the late legendary mob boss John Gotti, two trials of a California student who knew two of the Sept. 11 hijackers and the trial of international arms dealer Viktor Bout.
The AP interview came after a New York Daily News article revealed that the staff of Mayor Michael Bloomberg had reviewed her record to show that 60 percent of her 15 written "search-and-seizure" rulings since she took the bench in 1994 had gone against law enforcement.
The judge called it a "below-the-belt attack" on judicial independence. She said it was rare when any judge grants a request to suppress evidence in a law enforcement case and that inclusion of the numerous times when she rejected the requests with oral rulings from the bench would likely reduce the total to less than 5 percent.
She said reports that the mayor's office was behind the study made it worse.
"If that's true, that's quite disgraceful," Scheindlin said. "It was very discouraging and upsetting. I can't say it has no toll."
Of such criticism, she said: "It's very painful. Judges can't really easily defend themselves. ... To attack the judge personally is completely inappropriate and intimidates judges or it is intended to intimidate judges or it has an effect on other judges and that worries me."
A Bloomberg spokesman said Saturday, "We did a simple search of publicly available written decisions, as the media is also free to do."
The New York County Lawyers' Association called the report meaningless because it sampled so few Scheindlin rulings.
Scheindlin has faced heat before, most notably a decade ago when she presided over the trials of Osama Awadallah and one newspaper labeled her "Osama's best friend," a reference that some could misinterpret to refer to Osama bin Laden.
"You could be in danger, physically," she said.
The Awadallah case is memorable to Scheindlin for how it reflected the mood of the attitude across the country after the Sept. 11 attacks. Awadallah, born in Venezuela and raised in Jordan, was a young immigrant in San Diego who was picked up as a material witness after his telephone number was found in a car that one of the hijackers drove to the airport on Sept. 11. Prosecutors agreed he was no terrorist but claimed he intentionally misled grand jurors about how well he knew one of the terrorists. Defense attorneys said he was left confused after 20 days in detention.
She said she learned in talking to jurors after Awadallah's first trial that they came within one vote of convicting him of false statements. At the next trial, he was exonerated.
"Same evidence. Same prosecutor. Same defense lawyers. Jury goes from 11-to-1 to 12-zip," she recalled. "So I asked what happened. The answer is the country had turned in a new direction."
She said immediately after Sept. 11, "people were so worried and so terrified that the next attack was around the corner that they were willing to cede many of their civil liberties."
She added: "The second half of the (President George W.) Bush term, Bush policies were not popular any longer. People were much more distant from the event of 9/11. Now they were more concerned with civil liberties and less concerned with the security threat. ... I thought it was dramatically shown by what happened in that case."
In choosing law clerks, Scheindlin looks for varied experience like her own. She has been a prosecutor and a defense lawyer and was once politically active.
"I don't want a kid who's just done seven straight years of A's at Harvard," she said. "I want to know that they've done something, worked somewhere. Some experience. Some work. Some life. That makes for a rounded person."
And should they someday become a judge, it makes them well prepared for the rare case of impact.
"That's the day you live for, to do something that you believe is right and that is upheld as right and has a national impact, that's great," Scheindlin said. "That's why people want to be judges, I think, so they can make a difference."
Associated Press writers Tom Hays and Colleen Long contributed to this report.
Copyright 2013 Associated Press