N.Y. ‘frisk’ judge calls criticism ‘below the belt’

NEW YORK (AP) — The federal judge presiding over civil rights challenges to the stop-and-frisk practices of the New York Police Department has no doubt where she stands with the government.

“I know I’m not their favorite judge,” U.S. District Judge Shira A. Scheindlin said during an Associated Press interview Friday.

It was another moment of candor for a judge known for her call-it-as-she-sees-it manner and willingness to confront government lawyers in a courthouse where many judges — former federal prosecutors themselves — seem less inclined.

“I do think that I treat the government as only one more litigant,” she said during the interview, which proceeded with but a single rule: no questions about the trial over police tactics that reaches closing arguments Monday.

The trial has put the NYPD and City Hall on the defensive as they justify a long-running policy of stopping, questioning and frisking some residents to deter crime. Critics say it discriminates against blacks and Hispanics. Judge Scheindlin is not being asked to ban the tactic, since it has been found to be legal, but she does have the power to order reforms in how it is implemented.

During the trial, she’s shown an impatience with lawyers on both sides when they stray from the topic at hand, and a willingness to directly question witnesses — including police supervisors — about the nuts and bolts of trying to keep streets safe.

“I don’t think they’re entitled to deference,” she said of government lawyers. “I think some of the judges are a little more timid to maybe disagree with the U.S. attorney’s office. … They have to prove their case like anybody else. I don’t give them special respect. Maybe some judges do because they came from the office, they know the people there, whatever. I try not to do that.”

Judge Scheindlin, 66, appointed by President Bill Clinton, has had plenty of high-profile cases in 19 years in federal court, including three trials of John “Junior” Gotti, the son of the late legendary mob boss John Gotti; two trials of a California student who knew two of the Sept. 11 hijackers; and the trial of international arms dealer Viktor Bout.

The AP interview came after a New York Daily News article revealed that the staff of Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg had reviewed her record to show that 60 percent of her 15 written “search-and-seizure” rulings since she took the bench in 1994 had gone against law enforcement.

The judge called it a “below-the-belt attack” on judicial independence. She said it was rare when any judge grants a request to suppress evidence in a law enforcement case and that inclusion of the numerous times when she rejected the requests with oral rulings from the bench would likely reduce the total to less than 5 percent.

She said reports that the mayor’s office was behind the study made it worse.

“If that’s true, that’s quite disgraceful,” Judge Scheindlin said. “It was very discouraging and upsetting. I can’t say it has no toll.”

Of such criticism, she said: “It’s very painful. Judges can’t really easily defend themselves. … To attack the judge personally is completely inappropriate and intimidates judges or it is intended to intimidate judges or it has an effect on other judges, and that worries me.”

A Bloomberg spokesman said Saturday, “We did a simple search of publicly available written decisions, as the media is also free to do.”

The New York County Lawyers’ Association called the report meaningless because it sampled so few Judge Scheindlin rulings.

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