Lawyers, Trials and Judges: Tales from the Southern District

Ross Sandler

Ross Sandler

When trial lawyers gather they tell stories. When older trial lawyers gather they tell the same stories over and over, only they tell them better and better. James Zirin, trial lawyer and an assistant in the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the Southern District during the 1960’s, is a born story teller. His new book, The Mother Court: Tales of Cases That Mattered in America’s Greatest Trial Court (ABA Publishing 2014) tells the tales of lawyers and judges and the trials that occurred within the federal court house in Foley Square, home of the Southern District of New York. The tales produce laughter, insight, and recognition of a time and place. Zirin loves lawyers, judges and litigation. The book will make you love them too.

Zirin was an Assistant United States Attorney in the criminal division under Robert Morgenthau from 1967 to 1970. He tried more than 30 cases to verdict, but also seemed to absorb all of the stories and events throughout the court house. In those days lawyers gathered each evening at Gastner’s, a local restaurant and saloon which was later torn down to make room for a federal office building. Every night the lawyers came and told stories. Reading Zirin’s book is like joining the evening group at Gastner’s.

There’s the one about Judge Murphy and the Muslim defendant, Judge MacMahon and the fresh assistant who spelled his name, Judge Edelstein who rarely went to court, Judge Palmieri who loved opera, Judge Kaufman who tended his reputation, Judge Manton who took bribes but still decided on the merits, Judge Gurfein who refused to enjoin the Pentagon Papers, Judge Woolsey who let Joyce’s Ulysses in, Roy Cohn who was acquitted three times, and Judge Weinfeld who began at 9:30 sharp. These are great stories, beautifully and memorably told.

Why the Mother Court? Because the Southern District opened for business before the Supreme Court, and also because the court sits in Manhattan and its decisions have had national importance. Zirin places cases in context and explains their importance. The cases provide structure, but the joy of the book is the human, funny and moving stories that bring the cases to life. Zirin says that all he ever wanted to be was a trial lawyer. His book will make readers want to be trial lawyers too.

Ross Sandler

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