Judge Who Desegregated Yonkers Housing Dies at 88


MANHATTAN (CN) — Known for the protracted civil-rights case that defined his career, U.S. District Judge Leonard Sand died at 88, leaving behind a desegregated Yonkers, three children and a passion for justice that spoke softly from the bench and loudly in his rulings.

As a new decade dawned in 1980, the federal government tried to conform Yonkers, New York, to the Fair Housing Act despite ordinances that shuffled minorities into certain housing and school districts. Sand ordered the city to desegregate a decade and a half later in 1995, but years of political drama would unfold before his edict would be followed.

In the 1980s, federal authorities had pushed for a then-groundbreaking public housing project to build 200 scattered-site public housing units in the city’s suburban streets.

Before that, most public housing had been constructed in a large, single site.

As overwhelmingly white neighborhoods opposed the project, Yonkers’ recalcitrant politicians followed suit, and politicians resisted Sand’s order to comply with the initiative.

Blasting the city’s delay and defiance, Sand threatened to hold those leaders in contempt of court, making him a darling of civil-rights groups and the bane of the city’s leadership.

The judge’s persistence and soft-spoken reputation contained the seeds of television drama.

His Yonkers case filled the pages of the non-fiction book “Show Me a Hero,” later adapted into an HBO miniseries written by David Simon.

Actor Bob Balaban, renowned for his affability, portrayed the judge.

Consuming 27 years of a career spanning nearly four decades, the Yonkers case became synonymous with Sand’s tenure. But the judge also presided over other high-profile cases spanning from civil liberties to terrorism.

President Jimmy Carter appointed Sand to the bench in 1978, after a decades-long career in private practice, the U.S. Attorney’s office and even the office of the U.S. Solicitor General, during which he argued 13 cases before the Supreme Court.

For such an experienced litigator, Sand had a famously easygoing demeanor. The New York Times described him as a “Mild-Mannered U.S. Judge Under Attack” at the height of the Yonkers case in 1988.

Two years later, Sand overturned a ban on panhandling in New York City subways, calling the prohibition a violation of the First Amendment. The Times identified the case as the first to recognize panhandling as protected free speech.

Sand also presided over the case of two men sentenced to life imprisonment for conspiring in the bombing of two U.S. embassies in East Africa.

His family is holding a private memorial, and the court is expected to perform its own at a later date.

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