It’s getting hard to miss U.S. District Court Judge Denny Chin.
On Aug. 31, Judge Chin gave Khallid Muhammad the right to have his Million Youth March in Harlem, overriding Mayor Rudolph Giuliani’s objections that Mr. Muhammad had last year whipped the crowd toward rioting. Judge Chin, 45, the city’s youngest Federal circuit judge and increasingly one of its most outspoken, made an obvious ruling, laying down the exact duration-and-space limits on the controversial rally that a higher court had imposed a year earlier–and that City Hall had initially offered to Mr. Muhammad this time around.
What got Judge Chin called names by the New York Post was his arguably gratuitous poke in the Mayor’s eye in the last line of his 32-page decision. “Excessive numbers of police officers in riot gear, rigid enforcement of deadlines, and helicopters swooping over the crowd can only increase, rather than lessen, tensions,” he chided. Earlier in the decision he had laid out other, similar “disquieting impressions” about the Police Department’s conduct.
Judge Chin has slipped into the public eye only occasionally since he made it to the bench in U.S. District Court in Manhattan in 1994, including when he presided over cases involving Mariah Carey, corrupt police officers and Megan’s Law. Later this fall, he may become more visible as he presides over Christian Curry’s messy wrongful dismissal case against Morgan Stanley.
Yet down at the courthouse on Pearl Street, Judge Chin is known as the rare judge willing to put some oomph in his judging. More specifically, lawyers know him as a Jedidiah Purdy of the New York bar, decrying New York lawyers’ uncivil straying from the straight and narrow. In past years, he has sanctioned lawyers for their frivolous lawsuits and blustery threats. In one case involving the estate of Andy Warhol, he hit up the lawyers of an Atlanta firm and their commercial client for $400,000. In May, the judge leaped on a soapbox when he blasted lawyer Judd Burstein, a member of the legal in-crowd. Tagging Mr. Burstein for unfair tactics, threatening his opponent and otherwise engaging in “vexatious and unreasonable conduct” that “can only be described as ‘Rambo lawyering,'” he ordered the bold barrister to a special sanctions hearing.
In his opinion on Mr. Burstein’s behavior, he quoted a law review article titled “The Topic Is Civility: You Got a Problem With That?”: “Every time that you make uncivil lawyers lose, you score a big victory for civility. Every time an abrasive, abusive, hostile, harassing, combative, discourteous, hardball, win-at-all-costs, take-no-prisoners, scorched-earth, Rambo lawyer loses, it’s a great day for civility.”
The judge, citing a personal policy of not speaking to the press, declined to talk to The Observer .
No less than his sharp tongue, Judge Chin’s path to the bench stands out. He was awarded a Federal judge’s guaranteed lifetime salary at the tender age of 40. An employment litigator after his tenure in the U.S. Attorney’s office (including under Mr. Giuliani), many doubted he was ready when Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan nominated him, and some still aren’t sure. “His reputation is he tries hard. He had a fairly limited background coming to the court; he had a niche practice before. He’s been asked to decide cases that go way beyond his experience,” said one Federal litigator.
By now, though, the guy has sat on 100 trials and had more than 500 published opinions, and his Million Youth March decision was instantly affirmed by the appellate court above him; the higher court even took Judge Chin’s criticisms of the Police Department and added some bite to his gnaw.
Courthouse traditionalists, however, may be less fond of young Judge Chin’s more independent qualities: Not only does he scold lawyers in that aggressive manner, he–yes–writes some of his decisions in the first person. Most other judges prefer to call themselves “the Court.”
Yet it’s his attachment to civility that is drawing attention down at the courthouse. In the case involving Mr. Burstein–which involved a fee dispute between Mr. Burstein’s client, the creator of the hair Scunci, and her former attorney, Robert Cinque–Judge Chin issued warnings right from the opening bell. “There is too much emotion in this case,” he said in the first hour. “Both sides should tone it down. When you’re sitting there, don’t make faces.”
Later that day, he issued a second warning about sending facial signals. Two days after that, Judge Chin leaped on Mr. Burstein’s partner, Laurie McPherson. “You’re sitting there with your mouth wide open, and I find it extremely disrespectful and extremely distracting,” he said.
“I apologize, Your Honor, I didn’t realize I was doing it. I am somewhat surprised at your ruling, and that’s the only reason I’m reacting,” she replied.
“You can be surprised all you want. You know, I’m here to make rulings, right or wrong. If you don’t agree with it, you can go up and appeal. And you don’t make faces. You don’t stand up and tell the court that you’re surprised at the rulings. That’s compounding the disrespectfulness.”
Overnight, Mr. Burstein and Ms. McPherson wrote a letter of apology. Judge Chin didn’t appreciate that, either. “I’ve got to say I don’t believe the apology is really a sincere one,” he said at the start of the next court day. “The implication is that, frankly, that I am being hypersensitive.… The fact is, there are very, very few judges who would tolerate a lawyer constantly making faces and then standing up and saying, ‘I made a face because I was surprised by Your Honor’s ruling,’ as if to say, ‘Your ruling was so stupid, I could not help myself to make a face.'”
“He has high standards, and he holds lawyers to them,” said Hal Lieberman, a former chief prosecutor for disciplining lawyers.
“I know Denny is someone who feels strongly that if he sees something wrong happening, he’s not going to look away,” said Michael Patrick, his old law partner. “He’s a no-nonsense guy who does not brook people attempting to do make-believe, either for their clients’ sake or for their own egos.” He’s not afraid to say a witness has lied.
On Sept. 8, with the Million Youth March behind him, Judge Chin returned to the familiar territory of criticizing his former colleagues. During a panel discussion called “The Ethics Challenge” at the New York Country Lawyers Association, Judge Chin said that lawyers trying to screw each other during a case’s discovery phase had seemed an ugly problem to him from his first days on the bench. “Maybe I had traveled in different circles, but when I started sitting, I was just amazed at how many problems there were.”
Lawyers often stop their fighting when he pipes up. But sometimes not. He warned the crowd of 150 lawyers, “The trial judge can act in these instances as the accuser, fact-finder and sentencing judge.”
Judge Chin’s efforts at sanctions have drawn flak. In one 1997 case he dismissed, he fined lawyer Thomas Liotti for filing a frivolous lawsuit against Mariah Carey and her record company. The suit claimed that Ms. Carey had stolen song lyrics from Mr. Liotti’s client. Mr. Liotti filed an appeal, and the higher court has overturned Judge Chin’s dismissal. But the case has not yet been retried. “We had a legitimate claim, at least one that legitimately deserved to be argued,” said Mr. Liotti. “I’ve had this stuck on my reputation, and there’s nothing I can do about it.”
There’s no question Judge Chin is a Judeo-Christian ethics kind of guy. “He has the most deeply rooted sense of doing the right thing,” said Anne Vladeck, one of his former law partners, “and if that means that it’s coming down on one side or another harsh–or in what appears to be harsh–it’s just the product of doing the right thing.”
It happens to be that lawyers like Judge Chin. In the Almanac of the Federal Judiciary ‘s survey of judges, litigators rated him neutral, courteous and a good trial manager. He likes to sit down with lawyers after a case and dissect the action. Privately, attorneys said that they feared the wrath of Shira Scheindlin, who, like Judge Chin, was appointed by President Clinton, more.
Judge Chin, a Chinese immigrant, grew up in Hell’s Kitchen. He attended Stuyvesant High School and Princeton University, then toiled at hoity-toity Davis Polk & Wardwell and the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Manhattan, where then-assistant U.S. attorney Randy Mastro roasted him when he left the civil division for private practice.
Judge Chin has had mixed success with his decisions. In 1995, he ruled that Megan’s Law violated the Constitution as written, but he was overturned. He got praise for his handling of a corruption trial involving a decorated cop, Alfonso Compres, in 1995. His reversal rate is about average among Federal judges in Manhattan.
Judge Chin is not a stick in the mud, insisted friends. One day this summer when his old partner, Mr. Patrick, was shuffling papers on Madison Avenue, Judge Chin called from the bungalow their families share in Montauk. “I’m on the beach,” the judge told Mr. Patrick through his cell phone. And then the judge held the phone toward the waves. “Do you hear that?” he asked, laughing.
But decorum must be maintained. “You certainly don’t have to be a gladiator or a killer to be an effective lawyer,” he told the New York County Lawyers crowd on Sept. 8. “Juries don’t like lawyers who are trying to be killers. Often you have a witness up there, and the lawyer is totally destroying them. And that may not be as effective as the lawyer thinks. Juries are forgiving. They will tolerate a little bit of lying.
“Whereas a judge,” he continued, “might not.”