Remembering a Great U.S. Judge

Photo credit: Chester Higgins Jr. / The New York Times

No, not Antonin Scalia, may he rest in peace.

I want to talk about my friend Miriam.

On February 6, a week before Scalia’s death, The New York Times reported the passing of 86-year old Federal Judge Miriam Goldman Cedarbaum, who served on the U.S. District Court of Manhattan for 30 years, showing up for work until the last week of her life. Judge Cedarbaum’s thousands of cases most famously included the stock-trading trial of domesticity tycoon Martha Stewart and the terrorist trial of Faisal Shahzad, the would-be Times Square bomber. The judge was tough on both defendants but sentenced Stewart to five months in prison and five months of home confinement, less than the maximum federal guidelines –surprising court observers by telling Stewart “you have suffered, and will continue to suffer, enough” — while giving Shahzad life without parole, the maximum sentence.

Cedarbaum, recommended by U.S. Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan and nominated by President Reagan to the federal bench in 1986, previously worked as an assistant US Attorney in New York, a Department of Justice attorney in DC, an assistant counsel for the Moreland Commission, an associate counsel for the Museum of Modern Art, and a Village Justice in Scarsdale while a senior attorney in private practice. She loved the law almost as much as she loved her lawyer husband of 49 years, who pre-deceased her by a decade; her two lawyer sons who she took time off to raise; her four doted-upon grandchildren; her late-life companion from high school, who she re-met after both were widowed; and her wide circle of colleagues and friends, among whom I was fortunate to be included for the past two decades.

I first met Miriam when, on a colleague’s recommendation, I invited her to serve as Chair of the New York State Selection Committee for the Rhodes Scholarships, of which I was Secretary. Since the Chair, by design, was the only member of the committee who was not a Rhodes scholar, I needed someone who could command respect and hold her own while working seamlessly with our self-assured group.

Miriam did not disappoint. She was unpretentious but possessed instant gravitas, she read closely every page of the long candidate files and made scrupulous notes, and she had a good nose for both quality and inauthenticity. I recall one Ivy Leaguer who was an early favorite because he had overcome extreme obstacles to reach the finals. We were all rooting for him — not least Miriam because he was interested in the law — when a stray remark suggested the price of his powering through might be a flinty heart lacking in empathy. Miriam didn’t want to believe it — she was an optimist — but after sustained probing that failed to dislodge this stubborn blind spot, she accepted the evidence and helped steer us towards the right verdict.

In January 2004, in the early days of the media circus that was the Martha Stewart trial, I was surprised to receive a message in my office that Judge Cedarbaum had called. I assumed Miriam wanted me to know she was the judge in the case — we only saw each other once a year for an intense few days before everyone dispersed to their day jobs — and I smiled because you had to be living in a cave not to know. It was 24/7 saturation coverage.

I decided not to bother the Judge. We could talk after, when the dust had settled. A few days later, as the case continued to dominate national and even international headlines, I received a second message that Judge Cedarbaum had called. Utterly mystified and worried I’d been rude, I quickly called back. After various screens — the Judge was highly disciplined and never once talked to the press or appeared on TV during the trial — Miriam came on, as if she had all the time in the world with no one more important than me to think about.

“I don’t know if you heard, but I’ve been assigned the Stewart/Bacanovic trial and I know you were interested in how the federal court system works, so I thought you might want to come down and watch the proceedings as my guest?”

I was dumbfounded but managed to stumblingly accept this extraordinary personal invitation.

A couple days later, I took the subway down to the federal courthouse, passed through a throng of onlookers, satellite trucks and police barriers, climbed the massive, colonnaded steps and found the Judge’s assistant who escorted me past heavy security into a neo-classical courtroom where a rigorously choreographed process was underway.

The biggest surprise was the large number of empty seats in the wood-paneled room. Admission was strictly controlled. A phalanx of authorized press filled the back rows with a big gap in the center while Ms. Stewart, her broker and co-defendant Peter Bacanovic, her daughter Alexis and their attorneys, advisers, assistants and a small coterie congregated in two rows on the left; the government and a smattering of guests and observers sat across the aisle.

The contrast between the two sides was instantly apparent. Ms. Stewart, a statuesque, vivid blonde in elegant designer clothes, was surrounded by discrete wealth and privilege while the government side appeared shabby and pedestrian by comparison. Stewart’s dapper defense attorney, pirouetting in a custom-made three-piece suit, had a voice at once silky and booming that could barely be contained in the allotted space, like a great tenor confined to a school auditorium. But the government was dogged, projecting relevant documents onto a screen with well-prepared, albeit flat-footed, zeal. The jury of eight women and four men strained to keep up. Judge Cedarbaum presided with absolute command.

When the court broke for lunch, I was asked if I wanted to join the Judge for a bite in her chambers, an offer I couldn’t refuse. Heading to a private elevator, we were waylaid by a famous journalist who Miriam didn’t seem to recognize. He tried ingratiating himself and dropped some names, but Miriam brushed him off with a curt smile and muttered to me under her breath. She knew exactly who he was.

The Judge’s rich-paneled, thick-carpeted office many stories above the city was imposing and magisterial. It boasted the usual VIP photographs, degrees and awards — Miriam was a proud, active alumna of Erasmus High School in Brooklyn, of Barnard College, where she became a Trustee and an honoree as a trailblazer for women, and of Columbia Law School, where she was one of eight women and graduated second in her class of 280 — but it was her grandchildren’s framed, brightly colored hand drawings that occupied pride of place. The drawings plus a solitary, voluminous dictionary perched on a pedestal, attesting to the Judge’s love of language and grammar.

We kept our conversation light as we ate at the Judge’s long, well-appointed dining table and assiduously skirted the sensational case that was unfolding in the courtroom below. But at some point this forbidden fruit — and perhaps my own sense of mischief and opportunism — got the better of me.

“Some of those arguments the defense was making were fairly arcane and sophisticated,” I remarked to Miriam as casually as I could. “Are you sure the jury can follow it all?”

The Judge, a handsome, erect woman with an unwavering moral intelligence and a no-nonsense, old school demeanor — she evoked a cross between Lauren Bacall and Golda Meir dressed in Biblical judicial robes — knew exactly what I was doing. She gave me a stern look followed by the ghost of a smile.

“Juries don’t need to understand every word or even every argument. There’s only one thing they need to know and that’s who’s telling the truth!” Her eyes flashed with the simplicity of it all. “And believe me, in my experience, juries are very good at doing that, so I wouldn’t worry.”

For a couple of years after the case, Miriam and I lost touch. The state Rhodes committees were phased out and both of us had to deal with serious family illnesses. But following funerals and mourning periods that ran oddly parallel, we reconnected and started meeting for lunch.

Both of us had been changed by our losses but we found a strange, mutual solace, which deepened our friendship. We gave each other moral support, we debated the issues of the day, and we gossiped shamelessly.

Miriam remained active on the bench. In sentencing the unrepentant Time Square bomber, she challenged his citing of Saladin and the Crusades and explained that Saladin had also showed mercy to his enemies. When Sonia Sotomayor was nominated as the first Hispanic and third woman to the U.S. Supreme Court, it was Miriam who flew to DC and sat by her mentee’s side during the partisan confirmation hearings.

Once Miriam advised me for a project on neurobiology and the law — could scientific advances help us determine guilt or innocence by “peering into” the brain? — and once when I gave a private reading from a memoir I’d published, it was the octogenarian Miriam who trekked across town on a rainy day to hear me.

In the last few years, we stopped meeting in restaurants and ate in the senior Judge’s dining facilities in the federal courthouse. Miriam never lost her passion for work, her clear, strong mind and uprightness, and her curiosity about everything.

When I received the news of Miriam’s sudden stroke via her longtime assistant, Donna, I felt an ineffable sadness for myself but also for the moral universe, whose lights briefly flickered.

As I wandered into the packed Park Avenue Synagogue for Miriam’s funeral service, which included an entire section reserved for “Judges,” I realized I didn’t know a single person there. Yet I felt at ease because Miriam’s simple, true spirit infused the whole place.

Her two middle-aged sons, tenderly supporting each other at the podium, recalled that their mother ended every call by saying “Count your blessings” and she had indeed lived a blessed life, from Crown Heights to her federal coronation. Judge Cedarbaum’s first law clerk, an accomplished woman, spoke for the dozens of successful clerks over the years who were grateful for what the judge had taught them about the law and about human kindness and consideration, including her signature “There but for the grace of God go I!” before sentencing every criminal defendant. And Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who had flown in from DC, recalled the Judge’s enlightened mentorship and friendship, her deep and wide reading of the law, her avid interest in the arts and also her curious “innocence.”

The female rabbi announced that at Miriam’s request, the final prayer, normally ending with “and may God bless the children of Israel” would now conclude “and may God bless the children of Israel and the children of all the nations of the world.”

It was a big-hearted, humanitarian gesture, but it occurred to me it would have displeased the strict constructionists, those originalists who believe that any deviation from the original text is heresy. Judge Cedarbaum , well-known for her rigorous “just-the-facts “ approach, did not espouse dead literalism which can be construed as a form of fundamentalism; she believed in the unyielding pursuit of justice but a justice tempered by mercy and humility as well as common sense.

The skyline of New York has lost one of its lights, and the federal bench, and the country, has lost a treasure. I will miss my friend Miriam and when I count my blessings, there will be one conspicuous blessing less.