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Wednesday, July 17, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Judge Who Tamed Stop-and-Frisk Goes Private

MANHATTAN (CN) - With her signature civil-rights reform well under way, Judge Shira Scheindlin is done ruffling the government's feathers - at least from the federal bench.

"These have been the best years of my life in which I have had the pleasure of working with wonderful colleagues and the opportunity to work on many important and interesting cases," Scheindlin told her colleagues in a resignation letter on Wednesday.

Shortly after President Bill Clinton appointed her in 1994, Scheindlin picked her first fight with a New York City mayor.

Three years into Scheindlin's tenure, New York Magazine splashed pictures of Rudy Giuliani on public transportation ads touting itself as "possibly the only good thing in New York Rudy hasn't taken credit for."

Giuliani, who earned the Thomas Jefferson Center's "lifetime muzzle" award for trampling on the First Amendment, sued New York Magazine for having allegedly "irreparably harm[ed]" his reputation.

Tossing the case, Scheindlin needled the mayor as thin-skinned in an opinion that nodded to Giuliani's well-known love of the limelight.

''Who would have dreamed that the mayor would object to more publicity?'' Scheindlin said of Giuliani, whom the New York Times noted had appeared on "Saturday Night Live" only a week earlier.

Scheindlin's most widely publicized row with City Hall occurred decades later toward the end of her career with a trio of cases challenging racial profiling within the NYPD's Stop, Question, and Frisk program. The most significant of the three, Floyd v. City of New York, ended in her landmark order forcing the department to implement wide-ranging reforms including the use of body cameras and submission to a court-appointed monitor.

Throughout the trial that preceded her rulings, Mayor Michael Bloomberg's administration made its antagonism toward Scheindlin known via leaks to New York tabloids depicting her as anti-police.

When Scheindlin defended her neutrality to reporters, Bloomberg's attorneys used her interview to cast her ruling as the work of a biased judge on appeal. The Second Circuit would not go that far, but it recused Scheindlin from the case for allowing even an appearance of bias by talking to reporters.

Bloomberg may have notched a short-term victory, but his administration never recovered from a bruising defeat.

Running on a platform opposing inequality, then-mayoral hopeful Bill de Blasio depicted his predecessor's street-stop policies as part of a "tale of two cities" that he vowed to end.

De Blasio ultimately dropped his predecessor's appeal, and Scheindlin's successor implemented the very stop-and-frisk reforms that Scheindlin ordered.

As her docket closed, Scheindlin issued an order with a thinly veiled dig at the Second Circuit, stating that it would have been "most appropriate for the judge that supervised this case" to have stayed on for the "implementation of the remedies."

Scheindlin's iconoclasm sometimes pitted her against Main Justice, too.

In 2012, Russian arms trafficker Viktor Bout landed in Scheindlin's court to be sentenced for conspiring to sell weapons of mass destruction to Colombian guerrillas. Bout's depiction in Hollywood as the "Lord of War" and in non-fiction as the "Merchant of Death" made his a high-profile case.

Federal prosecutors requested a life sentence after nabbing the man who had long been suspected of arming dictators, despots and warring factions in the Congo, Angola, Sierra Leone and other conflict zones around the world.

Scheindlin gave him the statutory minimum of 25 years, out of concerns over the undercover sting operation that brought him down.

To bring Bout down, Drug Enforcement Agency agents posed as militants from the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC), which is classified as a terrorist group in the United States but not in Russia.

Paraphrasing U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer, Scheindlin told the prosecutors, "This country does not purport to be the Supreme Court of the entire world."

Scheindlin showed little sympathy for Bout, either.

"Indeed, the public does need protection from this defendant," she said at the time.

For now, Scheindlin told her colleagues that she is "looking forward to taking on new challenges in the private sector," where she plans to spend most of her time working on alternative dispute resolution "with the hope of doing a fair amount of public-interest work as well as working on commercial matters."

She added, "I will also become of counsel to a large New York City law firm where I anticipate assisting in client and pro bono matters, teaching and mentoring associates, and engaging in public speaking and writing."

Her public-speaking career will have to wait for a later date. Her chambers declined to grant press interviews for the moment, or identify the "large New York City law firm" where she will work after she steps down on April 29.

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