MANHATTAN (CN) – Before crossing the finish line of the New York City Marathon, the Second Circuit’s Judge Denny Chin remembers setting a more modest benchmark in the courthouse fitness room.
“The first time I ran five miles on the treadmill was at the gym in 500 Pearl,” Chin said, referring to the address of what is now known as the Daniel Patrick Moynihan Courthouse. “I was like, ‘Wow, that was a big step,’ because remember, back then, I was trying to recover from my surgery.”
Chin – the first Asian-American to win federal judicial appointment on the East Coast – had been on the Southern District of New York bench for just four years when in 1998 he underwent triple-bypass, open-heart surgery.
“I had not been a runner,” Chin, now 61, said in a candid interview inside his chambers.
As part of cardiac rehabilitation, however, the President Bill Clinton appointee began walking on a treadmill three times a week.
“Each week, I’d go a little faster, stay on a little bit longer,” Chin remembered.
Presiding in the Second Circuit for the last five years, Chin has his chambers in the Thurgood Marshall Courthouse. A Merriam-Webster dictionary used by the Supreme Court justice for whom the building is named now rests in the waiting room of Chin’s chambers, with the civil rights icon’s name stamped twice on its cover page.
This room also has a courtroom sketch from a pretrial hearing in the case against disgraced financier Bernie Madoff, whom Chin ultimately sentenced to 150 years behind bars for what he described at the time as an “extraordinarily evil” Ponzi scheme.
Another sketch shows a priest perched behind a wrongly convicted Jose Morales, whose habeas case before Chin inspired the “Law and Order” episode “The Collar.”
Believing the reality of Morales’ innocence outweighed the principle of priest-penitent privilege, Chin issued the critical opinion permitting the testimony that set the man free.
Chin’s decisions would grace the silver screen again later when he threw out a Fox News copyright lawsuit against comedian Al Franken, who had not yet become a U.S. senator, for parodying their “fair and balanced” slogan in the book “Lies and the Lying Lies Who Tell Them.”
His full-throated defense of fair use fell a decade before his landmark decision throwing out a copyright challenge against Google Books.
But Chin had many miles to run – sometimes, dozens at a stretch – before he would encounter any those cases.
Shedding 40 pounds, Chin’s training took him onto the streets, and he brought his law clerks with him. They would meet at 7:30 a.m. outside the courthouse for early-morning runs that sometimes passed over the Brooklyn Bridge, the East River and the Hudson.
“For a while there, people thought that to clerk for Judge Chin, you have to be a runner,” he said. “There certainly was a time when, once a week, we’d meet here at the courthouse and go out and run four miles or so and then come back.”
Chin’s former clerk, Jodi Golinsky, remembered seeing this reputation take root.
Now general counsel for a credit card venture, Golinsky said Chin made such an impact on her that she continues to send him a bouquet of flowers every year on the anniversary of his heart surgery.
It was Golinsky, who celebrated her 30th birthday by running her first half-marathon with Chin, who surprised the judge with an application she picked up for him to run his first New York City Marathon in 2000.
“To my surprise, he not only got into it, he really ran with it, if you will,” Golinsky said in a phone interview.
Not many federal judges followed in his footsteps. Chin said he could remember only one other marathoner-judge from a different court: Arthur Gonzalez, who was then the chief judge of the U.S. Bankruptcy Court in the same district.
“He’s the person you really ought to talk to!” Chin said, with typical modesty.
An avid runner, Gonzalez said in an interview that he ran more than 30 marathons with a best time of 3 hours and 26 minutes, though he said he’s temporarily out of commission with a bicycling injury.
Chin has run dozens of races and four marathons, starting less than two years after he was on the operating table. One picture shows triumphantly passing the finish line in Central Park with outstretched arms, clocking in at a very respectable time of 4 hours and 24 minutes.
In those days, Chin’s jogging route along the Hudson River had him crossing paths with Peter Quijano, before the trial attorney known for representing death-penalty defendants and accused terrorists had earned his “learned counsel” distinction.
Back then, Quijano, whose lightning-fast litigation reflexes match his 3 hour and 14 minute speed, used to call Chin “Your Honor.”
The honorific stopped sitting right as their friendship and marathon training developed.
Quijano remembered tacking on a belated “er, Your Honor,” after jocularly using a bleep-worthy word for the judge while rallying him to the finish line on race day.
With the salty language, Quijano also had sweets, handing Chin a chocolate bar as the judge started flagging near the final stretch of the race.
Diet-conscious Chin said he tried to refuse it but that the attorney insisted. “I remember eating the entire chocolate bar, and it gave me a bit of a lift there at mile 23,” Chin said.
Both men say running informed their legal careers. Chin would think over the languages of his opinions and the severity of his sentences while hoofing it, and Quijano said that he thought over every one of his summations on a dash.
In fact, Chin’s running wound its way of his opinion in the case of Gorran v. Atkins Nutritionals.
Jody Gorran, who was then a 53-year-old businessman, sued the company behind the Atkins diet and the estate of its late inventor after he got heart disease that he blamed on the low-carb fad sweeping the nation.
Chin dismissed the case on free-speech grounds, in a 29-page opinion remembered mostly today for its second footnote.
“The court notes that it has had success with its own, much simpler diet, which can be described in four words: ‘Run more, eat less,'” Chin wrote, in advice picked up by the Associated Press.
“Suddenly, the Judge Chin diet was all over the country,” Chin said, reflecting on it today.
A back injury will keep Chin on the sidelines this Sunday for the 2015 New York City Marathon, but other accomplishments have eclipsed running for Chin’s personal records.
For Hong Kong-born Chin, those honors belong to his undergraduate tenure at Princeton, his prosecutorial career at the U.S. Attorney’s Office, and his family.
His wife Kathy Hirata Chin is a partner at Cadwalader, Wickersham & Taft. His older son is a principal of a public school in Brook, and his younger son is in college.
Despite Chin’s modesty, his friend Quijano said that the judge has a competitive streak like every runner.
“He’s very unassuming. He’s very humble, but he is driven,” Quijano said.
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