From the Editor
Eastern District of New York’s 150th Anniversary Celebration
By Bennette D. Kramer
On March 16, 2015, the Eastern District of New York celebrated its 150th anniversary. The judges of the Eastern District were joined by Supreme Court Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor to celebrate the anniversary.
In 1865, President Abraham Lincoln signed the bill establishing the Eastern District in the middle of the Civil War. The Southern District had been around for 75 years by that time, and it had covered the Eastern District area.
My own history with the Eastern District goes back to 1972 when my former husband and I moved to Brooklyn so he could clerk for Judge Orrin Judd. Fast forward 15 years and in 1987 I returned to the Eastern District courthouse to clerk for Judge Thomas Platt. Since my clerkship, I have been involved with the court as a director of the Eastern District Civil Litigation Fund and as counsel in a number of cases pending in the district. I have a great fondness for the court and the judges who sit on it.
After the presentation of colors by the U.S. Marine Corps and a singing of the Star Spangled Banner by Rosalie Sullivan, Chief Judge Carol Bagley Amon provided some court history. She said that the first judge was Judge Charles L. Benedict, who served alone from March 9, 1865 until January 1, 1897. There was only one judgeship until 1910 and no courthouse until the judges moved into the post office in 1912. In 1919, President Theodore Roosevelt visited to participate in swearing in new citizens. Judge Amon listed the judges who had died since the 125th anniversary celebration.
Judge Amon also noted that Judge Henry Bramwell, who assumed the bench in 1974, was the first African American judge on the court and that Judge Reena Raggi, now a circuit court judge, became the first woman on the court in 1987. Judge Amon thanked Judge Roslynn Mauskopf for organizing the celebration.
Justice Ginsburg’s Remarks
Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg spoke next. Justice Ginsburg noted that after the Eastern District was established, it had no home of its own and if it needed help it could call on the Southern District. Now, it is one of the largest district courts in the country with 14 active judges and 15 senior judges. When he was chief judge, Judge Jack B. Weinstein was under pressure to split the court, but the Central Islip courthouse was built instead. Justice Ginsburg, who had been Judge Weinstein’s student at Columbia Law School, said that only seven judges in the country had served longer than Judge Weinstein, who has served for 48 years and is still actively serving. When Justice Ginsburg clerked in the Southern District from 1951 to 1953, there were no women on the bench; now the majority of Eastern District active judges are women.
Justice Ginsburg said that the Pro Bono Panel and the Eastern District Civil Litigation Fund provide access to justice.
From Admiralty to Today
Alan Vinegrad, former Eastern District U.S. Attorney, spoke as president of the Eastern District Association. He noted that five judges of the Eastern District had served in World War II. Also, Justice Ginsburg was born in Brooklyn, and Justice Sotomayor had lived in Brooklyn. Vinegrad talked about the breadth of Eastern District cases and explained that the first Eastern District cases had been admiralty cases.
Judge Weinstein talked about the Eastern District in the past and present. He explained that the court was established in the midst of the Civil War to deal with admiralty problems arising from the blockade of the South, which was enforced by ships built in the Brooklyn Navy Yard. The Spanish-American War was the beginning of this country’s intervention abroad. During World Wars I and II the district was a major arsenal and on September 11 many Brooklyn firefighters were killed trying to save people from the fires. September 11 was the start of the court’s call to deal with the dangerous new terrorism.
The court serves the world and the community by admitting thousands as new citizens each year, helping people with special needs through the Willowbrook case, and protecting the world against law breakers and overreaching government. Judge Weinstein also recognized the members of the bar who help the court, including the Civil Litigation Committee and the Civil Litigation Fund – one helps to create local rules and the other with social help programs for needy litigants. He also recognized volunteer mediators and special masters. Judge Weinstein pointed to powerful protective laws enacted during his lifetime, enforced by the court, that are designed to protect against discrimination, support workers’ rights and equality of voting powers, and provide a strong social welfare net.
Judge Weinstein finished with an affectionate nod to his colleagues, whom he said work with a continuing desire to provide the rule of law to all the people in the district. He lauded the respect the judges of the district have for one another and the people who work with the court in programs that have become benchmarks throughout the country such as pretrial services and probation and treatment programs. Judge Weinstein has an obvious and enduring love for the court.