From the ‘Pressure Cooker’ to the ‘People’s Court,’ Judge Peter Sweeney Now Presides Supreme

March 28, 2012 Brooklyn Eagle Staff
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Brooklyn Judge Reflects On Courthouse Variations and When Wild Dogs Roamed the Streets

By Samuel Newhouse

Brooklyn Daily Eagle

ADAMS STREET — Hon. Peter J. Sweeney has just begun another decade-long term as an elected judge in Brooklyn. But having been appointed to the Kings County Supreme Court in an “acting” capacity, the veteran jurist finds that his judicial role in recent times can be quite different than what he was previously used to.

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“It’s a whole different energy over there,” Justice Sweeney said of the lower court at 141 Livingston St. “There’s much more going on, lots of volume, lots of pro se defendants. When I was there, 300 motions in a day was not a surprise. Here, it is much more deliberative.”

First elected to the Kings County Civil Court just weeks after 9/11, Sweeney spent nearly 10 years at the lower court on Livingston Street in Downtown Brooklyn, where he was eventually promoted to be the supervising judge of the entire court.

But Sweeney’s rise did not stop there. He was appointed to become an “acting” Supreme Court justice in 2010 and was transferred to the higher court’s Civil Term at 360 Adams St. just over a year ago.

When he began presiding at the Brooklyn Supreme Court Civil Term, Sweeney was integrated into a three-judge schedule rotation with fellow justices Hon. Peter Sherman and Hon. Lawrence Knipel. Part of the rotation was supervising the Civil Term’s Jury Coordinating Part (JCP), where Sweeney handled as many as 125 cases in a day, either by trying to settle them or sending them out to other judges for other trials.

“That’s where all the action is,” Sweeney said. “I used to come to JCP as an attorney. Now that I’m on the bench, I really get a kick out of it.”

Sweeney, 55, originally from Bay Ridge, joined his father’s insurance defense firm, Sheft, Wright & Sweeney, after graduating from Catholic University’s Columbus School of Law. He later formed his own practice before being elected to the bench in 2001.

“I’ve been on both ends, plaintiff’s counsel and defendant’s counsel,” he said. “I respect what lawyers do. It’s a difficult job. You can work 15 hours a day and still not feel done. Talk about a pressure cooker.”

Getting Your Kicks & Getting It Right

“My father was a lawyer, so I guess I followed in the footsteps of my father. For his entire career he was a litigator,” Sweeney said. “My father was always on trial, and that fascinated me. … In college, my professors used to tell me that I was a good arguer.”

Perhaps politics could also have been Sweeney’s calling — if his stint as class president at Marywood University in Pennsylvania hadn’t shown him how tough it was to govern, he joked. Instead, Sweeney, who currently resides in Staten Island with his wife and three young children, prefers the thoughtful work of a jurist.

“You know that your ruling always means something,” he said. “You want to get it right. I want to get it right.”

Sweeney learned a great deal about handling trials while working as the supervising judge of Brooklyn Civil Court.

“Believe it or not, as supervising judge, you still have a full schedule of cases,” he said.

Brooklyn Civil Court is often known as “the people’s court” — it’s where matters worth less than $25,000 are adjudicated. Matters worth more than $25,000 go to Supreme Court. However, that doesn’t mean that cases can’t be just as complicated or serious. Sweeney once handled a case where many, various matters were consolidated into a Brooklyn Civil Court trial worth almost $30 million.

“We brought Judge Sweeney here because we recognized his strengths and realized he would be an asset to what we would do here in the court,” said Kings County Administrative Judge for Civil Matters Sylvia O. Hinds-Radix. “He has a very good judicial temperament, is very well-liked by the bar, and is an asset to the bench.”

One interesting case in the “people’s court” that Sweeney had to handle was “the legal lockout of a yeshiva,” he said.

“Four hundred kids didn’t have a place to go to school. It was getting a lot of play in Borough Park. The families from the communities affected were coming in,” he said. “I have to say, the biggest kick I can get is when I can settle a case. That’s an accomplishment.”

In the Cards

Sweeney resides in Staten Island, but he called Brooklyn “a vibrant community” and said he might move back here one day. It’s changed a great deal since the days when Sweeney grew up in Bay Ridge, he said.

“Fort Greene — when I was going to high school there, I would look out the window, and there’d be wild packs of dogs in the street. Twenty to 30 dogs in the street in a pack,” he recalled.

“Anybody that’s lived here can tell you that what’s going on now can only be described as unbelievable,” he said. “Brooklyn is going through a renaissance. I believe it has more cachet than the city [Manhattan] in many respects. You can see it changing by the types of people coming into the courthouse.”

Sweeney said that with three children, he doesn’t have much time for hobbies outside the courthouse, although some guidebooks to Texas Hold ‘Em poker are on his bookshelf. Instead, he devotes most of his time to his kids.

“They grew up in the courthouse,” Sweeney said. “I’d take them in [to Civil Court] a few times a year at least. Sometimes, I’d make up cases for them and they’d ask questions about it, have to figure it out. Their classes have also had moot court here.”

He’s not sure if they’ll follow in his footsteps, but his kids are young, so it could still happen.

“I didn’t inspire my children to become lawyers, I inspired my children to do well in school. One daughter’s interested in becoming a lawyer or a movie star or a fashion designer — I don’t know.”

For Sweeney, a legal career and work on the bench were just in the cards.

“A lot of what we do, like when we preside over a trial, when you have to make decisions – it’s always difficult,” he said. “But it was always something that I wanted to do. One year I decided to make a play for it, and luckily, I won.”

Only a year into his new role in Brooklyn Supreme Court, Justice Sweeney is looking forward to continuing to dole out justice at 360 Adams St. for the foreseeable future.

“If I knew I became a judge, well, I always the liked the idea of that,” he said, “but I’d be surprised I’d get here so young. I’ve been sitting on the bench since I was 45. I could see myself very possibly sitting here for the next 20 years.”

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