Special Guests Include 2 U.S. Supreme Court Justices, Met Opera Singer
The Eastern District of New York (EDNY), with its primary courthouse located on Cadman Plaza East in Downtown Brooklyn, celebrated 150 years on Monday during a special session of the court presided over by the Chief Judge of the Eastern District Carol Amon. Hons. Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor, associate justices of the U.S. Supreme Court, and the judges of the Eastern District joined Amon.
Though not the exact date of the first EDNY court session, which was held on March 22, 1865, Monday’s celebration was a look back at the humble and noble beginnings of the court, the progressions made toward diversity and the application of justice as well as a look ahead to a district that has become one of the most respected and revered federal courts in the country.
It was on Feb. 25, 1865, that President Abraham Lincoln signed the bill that created the Eastern District.
“Many courthouses place the current president on the wall,” Amon remarked. But in Brooklyn, “it has been the picture of President Lincoln, our founder, that hangs in our courthouse.”
The actual Eastern District courthouse has had many homes over the years, with its first session convened in a room at Brooklyn City Court. It then moved to two separate locations on Montague Street and in 1891 settled in the backyard of 40 Clinton St.
The court eventually rented space in the “Brooklyn Daily Eagle Building … for overflow Chambers and offices,” noted a “History of the United States Court for the Eastern District of New York,” prepared by the Federal Bar Association of New York, New Jersey and Connecticut.
“Like the early [United States] Supreme Court, the Eastern District had no permanent home of its own,” Ginsburg later added.
“Our courthouse stands on the grounds where, in 1776, George Washington and a small band of patriots fought the bitter battle of Brooklyn for freedom,” District Judge Jack Weinstein noted.
The court has had its fair share of dignitaries, and Monday’s celebration continued that tradition with two of the first four females to ever sit on the highest court of the land, Ginsburg and Sotomayor, as guests.
“The birth of this court, 150 years ago, is cause for celebration,” Ginsburg said with affection. Ginsburg, a daughter of Brooklyn — born in the borough and an alumna of James Madison High School — touched on the court’s history and its diversity.
“In its early years…the court only had one judge,” Ginsburg reminded the audience as a reflection of how far the district has come. For the first 46 years of the district’s existence, one judge handled all of the court’s business, and in 1910, a second judge was added to assist with the caseload. It was not until a high rate of litigation during and after World War I when more judgeships were created for the Eastern District.
Ginsburg’s Brooklyn connections grew deeper after graduating from James Madison High when the “indomitable” Jack Weinstein — former chief judge of the district and at 93 one the most esteemed senior judges on the federal bench — served as her evidence professor at Columbia Law School.
The second female to sit as a justice in the highest court of the land, Ginsburg remarked on the diversity of the Eastern District bench, mentioning the first “woman to break that barrier in the Eastern District, Reena Raggi, in 1987.” Raggi now sits on the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit.
“For me, it is an incredible dream come true that the majority of the [EDNY] court’s active judges are women and that the composition of this bench mirrors the diversity of the communities the court serves,” said Ginsburg.
There are currently 12 female district judges serving the Eastern District of New York — all of whom are active and not in senior status.
The respected Supreme Court jurist was given a humorous T-shirt by Hon. Amon—who is known for her sense of humor—which read “You Want the Ruth? You Can’t Handle the Ruth!” for those pressuring the 82-year-old justice to retire from the Supreme Court bench. Ginsburg’s colleague, Sotomayor, did not speak at Monday’s event but will officiate a naturalization ceremony in October to commemorate the court’s anniversary.
“We call her ‘Sonny from the Bronx,’ and she [Sotomayor] has been given Eastern District of New York citizenship,” Amon wittily said.
On diversity of the bench and the district, it is with honor, Amon said, that the “descendants of those that Lincoln fought a tragic war to free, have occupied positions of such prominence on our bench.” Henry Bramwell was the first African American to serve on the EDNY bench in 1974. “[And] Hons. Sterling Johnson, William Kuntz and Margo Brodie…serve with distinction today.”
Also in the audience was Loretta Lynch, the current U.S. attorney for the Eastern District. “[A]nd how proud we all are that the first African-American woman nominated to serve as attorney general of the United States comes from the Eastern District of New York,” Amon added.
Monday’s ceremonies included remarks by Weinstein—who reflected on memory of sitting on his parents’ shoulders to as they watched Civil War veterans ride down Grand Central Parkway in the 1920s.
“Over the years, our judges and magistrate judges, despite a huge increase in number, have continued to share a deep affection—and an unwavering desire to provide the rule of law to all our people in this district,” said Weinstein.
A video presentation, narrated in the deep bass voice of Hon. William Kuntz, flashed headlines of important cases coming out of the Eastern District, including the notorious John Gotti Mafia-related case, espionage cases and cases involving acts of terrorism as well as civil settlements for Agent Orange victims and victims of the Holocaust. “The cases we have had over the years have been fascinating and reflective of the human drama that is the Eastern District,” said Amon.
The audience was graced with the voice of Rosalie Sullivan of the New York Metropolitan Opera, who performed operatic renditions of “The Star Spangled Banner” and “God Bless America.” Former Interim U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District Alan Vinegrad also remarked on the district’s history and importance in federal jurisprudence.
“No one could predict in 1865, what the court would become,” said Ginsburg. “Fast forward to today, the Eastern District is one of the largest districts courts in the country…a frontrunner…”
“The district is best known for cases where parties have come for justice and fair treatment.” Amon said.
Providing hope for another 150 years of the Eastern District, Ginsburg concluded, “May the U.S. District Court of the Eastern District of New York continue to flourish, serving all of the people … [and] to serve and [provide] justice that is equal and accessible to all.”
“We can’t let our history die with those who know it.”