Southern District of New York Celebrates Its 225th Anniversary

In the Courts

Southern District of New York Celebrates Its 225th Anniversary

By Magistrate Judge Lisa 
Margaret Smith

lmsmithOn Tuesday, November 4, 2014, the Southern District of New York held a celebratory Special Session in its Ceremonial Courtroom at the Daniel Patrick Moynihan U.S. Courthouse in lower Manhattan in honor of the 225th anniversary of “the Mother Court.”  The First Session of a United States court was held by the District of New York in the Royal Exchange, then located at the foot of Broad Street in New York City, approximately two months before the Supreme Court held its first session, on February 2, 1790, thus making the District of New York the first federal court to sit in the fledgling United States.  Both courts were established by the Judiciary Act of September 24, 1789.  The First Session of the District of New York took place on the first Tuesday of November 1789, just as this Special Session occurred on the first Tuesday of November, 225 years later.  On the occasion of the First Session, 30 men were admitted to the Bar of the District Court, including Richard Harrison, the first U.S. Attorney for the District of New York; Aaron Burr, who was to become the country’s third vice president; and Henry Brockholst Livingston, later appointed the sixteenth Justice of the Supreme Court.  The minutes of the First Session reflect that no business was conducted that day by the presiding judge, the Honorable James Duane, who had been appointed by George Washington to serve as the first judge of the District of New York.

The Special Session was presided over by the Honorable Loretta A. Preska, Chief Judge of the Southern District of New York, with a crowd of about 500 members of the bench and bar in attendance, in the Ceremonial Courtroom and in several overflow locations.  An American flag from the colonial period was escorted into the courtroom to music by members of the New York Ancients Fife and Drum Corps, wearing their colonial garb.  The procession included Preet Bharara, the current U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, along with representatives of the Maritime Law Association.  After the National Anthem was played by the Fife and Drum Corps, Chief Judge Preska called on Robert B. Fiske, Jr., the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York from 1976 to 1980, to comment on the occasion as a representative of the members of the Southern District’s bar.  Mr. Fiske also had offered remarks 25 years ago, at the court’s 200th anniversary celebration.  Mr. Fiske refrained from repeating the history of the court that he had delivered in 1989, instead talking about changes that have taken place during the 25 years since his earlier speech.  Mr. Fiske noted that both numbers of trials and trials as a percentage of filings have suffered a significant decline during this period, both in the Southern District and nationwide, although filings themselves have increased.  He commented on the dramatic change in the diversity profile of the bench during those 25 years, now including significant numbers of women and minorities, including, currently, three openly gay judges.  Echoing some of his remarks from 1989, Mr. Fiske commented on the advances in technology that have impacted the court; while in 1989 he was talking about word processing and computers, today we are assisted by electronic case filing and video-conferencing, among many other innovations barely imagined (if at all) in 1989.

The Acting U.S. Marshal, the Honorable Eric Timberman, delivered a Silver Oar, made available for the Special Session by its custodian, the Museum of the City of New York, to the bench.  The Silver Oar is, as the name implies, an oar made out of silver, inscribed “Court of Vice-Admiralty New York,” and it symbolizes the history of the District of New York as having succeeded the Vice-Admiralty Court of the Province of New York, which sat in New York from 1678 to 1775, and the Admiralty Court of the State of New York, which then existed until the District of New York took its place in 1789.  The importance of the court’s Admiralty jurisdiction, represented by the Silver Oar as well as by members of the Maritime Law Association, was highlighted in eloquent remarks delivered by the Honorable Charles S. Haight, Jr., District Judge of the Southern District of New York.  Judge Haight noted that “it is not surprising that when this court opened for business 225 years ago, it was largely limited in its jurisdiction to maritime cases, and remained so for the next hundred years, a century which … saw  the expansion of the nation’s maritime commerce and its increased concentration in the Port of New York.  While today the judges of the court deal with issues of civil and criminal law that Judge Duane could never have dreamt of, maritime cases continue to be an important percentage of those filed.”  Judge Haight observed that cases both famous and infamous, such as the litigation emanating from the collision of the ships Andrea Doria and Stockholm, have been among the admiralty cases resolved in the Southern District of New York.  Using prose which can only be described as lyrical, and with a solemn voice rich in its timbre, Judge Haight commented:

Admiralty cases will always arise from time to time because, unlike temporal practices that maritime industries may alter, the perils of the sea are eternal.  “Protect me, Lord,” goes the traditional mariner’s prayer, “for Thy sea is so great and my boat is so small.”  That prayer resonates today, even though some boats are so large they cannot fit into any American port, because however large or automated a ship may be, the world’s oceans, which cover two-thirds of the planet and seem to be covering more each day, are greater still, and their fury, when aroused, is not deterred by human technology.  Of necessity, this court has always been a great admiralty court.  It will remain so.

Judge Haight concluded his remarks with this thought:

For the sea itself is eternally fascinating, and so are ships and those who go down to the sea in ships, who by their daring or distress, courage or cowardice, foresight or foolishness, triumphs or tragedies of navigation, give employment to admiralty judges and lawyers, thereby generating that equally fascinating body of law that we call admiralty.  Chief Judge, I have completed my voyage.  I am grateful for this opportunity to return to my home port.

The co-chairs of the 225th Anniversary celebration, the Honorable P. Kevin Castel and the Honorable Deborah A. Batts, each offered remarks about the occasion.  Judge Castel revealed that the court has celebrated this occasion every 25 years since 1939 (the 150th anniversary).  He mentioned additional famous cases from the court’s admiralty jurisdiction, including claims from the sinking of the Titanic in 1912, the torpedo attack on the Lusitania in 1915, and the fiery tragedy of the General Slocum in the East River that resulted in more than 1,000 deaths in 1904.  Criminal cases both large and small have been prosecuted in what is now known as the Southern District of New York (Judge Castel noted that it was 200 years ago that the District of New York was separated into the Northern District and the Southern District), including, among many others, the Rosenbergs, Alger Hiss, former Attorney General John Mitchell, Bernard Madoff, Imelda Marcos, and the East Africa embassy bombers.  Included on the docket have been seminal cases such as the Pentagon Papers litigation and Erie Railroad v. Tompkins.  Judge Castel concluded his remarks by quoting the oath taken by all federal judges:

We hope that you will appreciate that the glory of the court is not in the personalities and intellects of those who sit on its bench. We are only temporary custodians.  It lies in the process, handed down to us by generations before, of deciding disputes without fear or favor according to the facts and the even-handed application of the rule of law.  It is summed up in the oath that each of us have taken for the past 225 years: to “administer justice without respect to persons, and do equal right to the poor and to the rich….’”

Judge Batts offered the committee’s appreciation for those organizations and individuals who had contributed in a variety of ways to the anniversary celebration, most especially by making available such unique historic items as the Silver Oar and Judge Duane’s original commission, signed by George Washington, which was on display before and after the Special Session.  Judge Batts also described many of the events scheduled over the coming year in celebration of the court’s anniversary, and invited the assembled multitude to attend as many as possible.  The anniversary events include an Exhibition of Courtroom Sketch Art, which is in the main lobby of the Thurgood Marshall U.S. Courthouse, where it will remain through May 4, 2015.  Three reenactments of significant cases are scheduled, including the Pentagon Papers case, on January 15, 2015 at the Moynihan Courthouse; a patent trial called American Pin v. National Button, on February 26, 2015, also at the Moynihan Courthouse; and the trial of John Peter Zenger at the Charles L. Brieant, Jr. Federal Building and U.S. Courthouse in White Plains, on May 14, 2015.  Additional presentations will be made about the lives of three significant members of the Southern District bench: Judge Edward Weinfeld on March 26, 2015, Judge Learned Hand on April 23, 2015, and Judge Constance Baker Motley on September 17, 2015, all at the Moynihan Courthouse.  The schedule of these and other events can be found at the court’s Web site under the “About the Court” drop-down menu, by clicking on “News and Events.”  See,

Those in attendance at the Special Session of the Southern District of New York were treated after the session to a festive reception in honor of the occasion, in the Constance Baker Motley Jury Assembly Room in the Moynihan Courthouse. It is fair to say that the entire occasion was both celebratory and solemn, marked as it was by music, laughter, and a large dose of history.  The Southern District of New York is rightfully proud of its storied history.

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