On September 14, 1994, Frederic Block, then a lawyer in private practice in Suffolk County, was in a Mazda dealership trying to lease a car. The saleswoman, who was in the midst of checking his credit rating, received a phone call. It was the White House, calling for Block. (Block’s office had forwarded the call.) With a look of incredulity, she handed Block the phone. When he hung up the phone, he told her that he had just become a federal district judge. She leased him the car.
This is just one of the anecdotes shared by United States District Court Judge Frederic Block at a book signing and reading at Brooklyn Law School in October in honor of his engaging new book, Disrobed: An Inside Look at the Life and Work of a Federal Trial Judge, held at Brooklyn Law School this October.
Judge Block began his talk by explaining why he had decided to write a book about his life on the bench. “I didn’t want to write an academic book, because there are plenty of those and they are written by great judges and people far smarter and more capable than I,” he said. “Over the years, it dawned on me that there is such a lack of knowledge about what [judges] are all about. I thought there was a need to try to reach out to the public and create some transparency about the federal bench—what we do, how we get our jobs, the differences between federal and state courts, who we judges are, and more.”
He hoped to educate and entertain the public with the many high profile cases that came before him, including the death penalty trial of drug kingpin Kenneth “Supreme” McGriff, and the trials of mobster Peter Gotti, Crown Heights rioter Lemrick Nelson, and night-club magnate Peter Gatien.
Throughout the evening Judge Block, who is known for his great sense of humor, read different passages from his book, including one about how he runs his courtroom quite differently than most. “I think you want to create a comfort level in the courtroom. It’s a balance and certainly you need to be in control of the shop, but at the same time you don’t want to terrorize lawyers. In my courtroom I do not require lawyers to stand behind a fixed podium when questioning witnesses. They are free to move about and make themselves as comfortable as they wish—as long as they obey common courtesies. When they argue motions before me, I talk candidly to them about my concerns and do not simply sit silently while they make speeches.”
Speaking to the students in the audience, the judge offered insight into how he chooses his law clerks. “Of course, I want to see someone who has an accomplished academic record, but I want to see something more than that. I like to have clerks who have done other things—been in the Peace Corps, been teachers, worked in the real world, in business or at a nonprofit,” he said. “I find that these clerks have a greater capacity for the human condition.”
In closing, Judge Block joked with the audience, assuring them that he didn’t expect everyone to buy his book. “Really, I didn’t come here so you would buy my book. And I don’t expect you to. Feel free to walk out of here without one. But if you don’t buy a book, and you appear in my court room, don’t be surprised if your client joins Peter Gotti in jail.”