Some of the world's most vicious offenders have passed through the courtroom of Judge Frederic Block of the Eastern District of New York (EDNY) over the past 17 years. Racketeers, murderers, mafiosi, and even a corrupt politician or two have all felt the force of the blunt jurist's no-nonsense rulings.
But he has kept his private thoughts to himself—until now. In a new book, Disrobed: An Inside Look at the Life and Work of a Federal Trial Judge, Judge Block breaks the jurists' code of silence explaining the system he has spent his professional life serving.
Block recently sat down in his Brooklyn, NY chambers with Cara Tabachnick, managing editor of The Crime Report, to explain why he wrote the book and what it feels like to be part of a system where, as he writes, judges have been relegated to the role of traffic cops “just waving on the endless traffic with no relief in sight.” In the conversation below, Block discusses the corrosive impact of mandatory minimum sentencing, the “byzantine” politics of judicial appointments, and why he wishes more judges would make their voices heard.
The Crime Report: Judges are one of the more mysterious players in our criminal justice system. You wrote your book in an effort to dispel this. Why?
Judge Frederic Block: People generally perceive judges as being stuffed shirts and skirts. This mystique about the judiciary always struck me as odd. People know a little bit about the Supreme Court, but not about state or Federal courts— where 95 percent of people's rights are adjudicated.
TCR: How much access should the public have to the judiciary?
FB: People have to know more about the judicial process. They are attracted to the law, but they really are ignorant about so much that we do that is so basic to our society. Personally, I think judges should try and open the process a little more. They should make their courtrooms user-friendly (and) they should humanize the environment. I like having people visit the court. It's a public forum, and the building is a public building. It is a wonderful facility. People should use it.
TCR: In your book you discuss the tightening of judicial discretion, particularly, in the sentencing period—and mandatory minimums. Why is that a concern?
FB: I think all judges are opposed to mandatory minimums. When discretion was given to the court after the Booker decision, the fear that we had was that it would spur Congress to enact more mandatory minimums.
EDITORS NOTE—The 2005 United States v. Booker Supreme Court decision ruled that federal sentencing guidelines are discretionary
That hasn't happened fortunately, but there is that 800- pound gorilla out there, that Congress can get more active in mandatory minimums. The first judiciary act of 1791 only provided for one mandatory minimum— and that was for capital cases. We know have 171 mandatory minimums, most of which happened in 1957 with the enactment of the Narcotics Control Act. About 80 percent of our mandatory minimums are for drugs. (Like most judges), I think that we should not be mere bean-counters. The sacred responsibility of deciding whether someone should be incarcerated or not really reposes with the sound discretion of the judges—which is what we were trained to do.
We are the third branch of government. Congress passes the laws, judges just enforce the laws. (But) Congress controls our budget (and) our purse strings. We have not had a raise since 1991 because we are linked to Congress's salary schedule. They have not de-linked us and sometimes there is a lot of hostility between the Congress and the courts, because after all, judges declare a lot of their statutes unconstitutional. I guess they get their noses out of joint. It's perceived to be a good thing to come down hard on the judges, because we have to make a lot of decisions which could be unpopular.
TCR: Judges have lost a certain amount of discretion and gained governmental oversight, while prosecutorial discretion seems to continue unchecked. That seems to be a discrepancy.
FB: We judges are at the end of the receiving line. Prosecutors exercise their discretion in deciding whom to indict and whom to bring before us. By and large in the Eastern District of New York, we have a terrific, responsible U.S. Attorney and U.S. Attorney's office, and we don't see a lot of hard cases, because the prosecutors are reasonable. But there are some parts of the country where this is not the case, and you have a prosecutorial zeal which really creates a lot of potential unfair situations.
TCR: You wrote that pursuing the death penalty was a waste of taxpayers' money. Seventeen states have abolished the death penalty. Do capital cases have a place at the Federal level?
FB: The amount of money we spend putting a handful of people to death is astronomical. None of the European countries, Canada, Mexico or Israel subscribe to the death penalty. It is important for people to know that we are in the company of Pakistan, Yemen, Libya, and Saudi Arabia [countries that have the death penalty—EDITOR]. That is the company we keep.
TCR: In the book, you express disappointment with state judges, calling them a “mixed bag.”
FB: In New York we have a byzantine system that goes back to the days of Tammany Hall. Reform efforts have never been successful, although many people have tried. The reality is that we have a patchwork system that makes no rational sense whatsoever. Some state judges are elected; some are appointed; some are elected and then appointed to the appellate court. In New York City, Family Court judges are appointed, (but) elsewhere in the state they are elected. There is no rhyme or reason to it. Over and above that, it is an abject political system to a fault. Independent lawyers are not part of it.
You have to be a political animal to get to be a state court judge, because it's the bosses who pick the judges—with some exceptions. New York City does better. (It has) a more independent view of putting judges on the bench. But if you are in a place where the Republican Party dominates you are going to get Republican judges. I you are in the place where Democrats dominate, you will get Democratic judges. Independents need not apply. But there has to be some reasonable correlation to merit.
TCR: Are we failing at the state level, which is where most of our criminal charges are levied?
FB: I think so. My sense is that you have a much greater correlation in the federal system of much more qualified judges than you do in the state system. If you ask 100 lawyers where they would rather be, 90 would say 'let me grow through the Federal court system.' The judges are more capable, the system works better, and it's more professional. We need court reform at the state level. We need to unify the court. We need better ways of encouraging independents, as well as Democrats and Republicans, who are competent, capable lawyers to be part of the state judicial system. I don't think we have that today.
TCR: You write that you sometimes feel “like the traffic cop just waving on the endless traffic with no relief in sight.”
FB: In the Eastern District, we get all the drug cases out of JFK (Airport), the couriers that smuggle drugs into the airport. There is not a week that goes by where I don't have to sentence someone who is a (drug) courier. They have to be punished, but nonetheless, they are desperate people, mostly.
It seems like the beat never stops. You wonder about what effect we are having on the so-called war on drugs. I would like to feel as a judge that what I am doing makes a difference. I hope it does, but I have no evidence that it really does. Half of our prison population is drug-related, but we spend billions of dollars on (the war). Why our country has so many drugs and why the demand here is so great for drugs is a puzzlement to me. I think we have to pay more attention to that as a society and I feel frustrated that what we do as judges doesn't make a heck of a difference.
TCR: What's right about our criminal justice system? What needs to change?
FB: What is right is that I am here. I started with hanging up a shingle and ended up as a Federal Court District judge in New York. That is what is great about America, but we also have to look at what is wrong with the system. We have schizophrenic laws. When you look at the statistics, you have to do a double-take, whether you believe in having guns in your home or not. In the last decade we have had 120,000 deaths due to guns. That is 30 times more than (the death toll in) 9/11, and that's more than all the wars we've had over the last century. Over the last decade, we are approaching almost one million people who have been shot.
I think we have to come to grips with the fact that we have a violent society, and the young generation has to decide whether they are going to change that culture. When you look at the United States and compare it to the rest of the civilized work, it's shocking. France has about 50 murders a year, Great Britain has 75, Canada approximately 100, and we have 11,000? It embarrassing actually, and doesn't speak well for us as a society. I still would rather live here than any place else, even though I am more likely be shot.
TCR: What does the future look like for you?
FB: I would like to preside over cases that I think are important. I would like to be a champion of trying to get people to be more open-minded, to be less emotional in the way we deal with our problems, and to be more rational in terms of basing our decisions and policies on information rather than just abject emotionality. Many judges will not approve of being more outspoken. I am of the firm belief that more outspokenness and more transparency increases respect for the judiciary. But I am sure there will be debate about that. And I encourage that debate.
Cara Tabachnick is Managing Editor of The Crime Report. She welcomes comments from readers.