Sentinel on the Bench

April 3, 2012 Brooklyn Eagle Staff
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For Decades, Judge Herbert Kramer Has Wielded His Gavel on Behalf of Brooklyn

By Samuel Newhouse

Brooklyn Daily Eagle

News for those who live, work and play in Brooklyn and beyond

ADAMS STREET — Decades ago, Kings County Supreme Court Justice Herbert Kramer saw a Brooklyn neighborhood fall to pieces.

“I was a witness to the destruction of Brownsville and East New York,” said Kramer, 75, who has been a Brooklyn judge for over three decades and will retire at the end of 2012.

It was in the 1970s, the days when Kramer, then an attorney, would drive to a parking garage in Brownsville before ascending an elevated train station and riding the subway to work in Downtown Brooklyn. Day after day, looking out from that elevated station over a period of years, Kramer saw residential blocks slowly decay, turning first into slums and then, a rubble-strewn, demolished block.

“It stayed with me,” Kramer recalled in an interview with the Brooklyn Eagle, speaking as if he could still see the ruined neighborhood in his mind’s eye. “Houses are foreclosed upon, then abandoned. The houses are taken over by drug dealers, the homeless. There’s a crisis. The neighborhood goes down. Then the city feels the pressure and eventually does what they have to do — destroy it.”

“Probably the scary experience of seeing the nature of what happens is the reason I’m involved in that area of law.”

Among the many types of cases Kramer has handled, he ranked his service on the Kings County Foreclosure Committee and as a judge sitting in the Judicial Foreclosure Referral Part as among the most important.

Maybe, colleagues said, that is due to Justice Kramer’s deep commitment to the borough of Brooklyn. A former community board chairman in Flatbush and a graduate of Brooklyn College and Erasmus Hall High School in Bay Ridge, Kramer sees judges as sentinels guarding their communities.

“He knew Brooklyn like the back of his hand,” said Kings County Supreme Court Justice Esther Morgenstern, recalling her work as Kramer’s law secretary — including during felony criminal cases.

 “When the D.A. [assistant district attorney] would mispronounce a location in front of the jury, [Kramer] would always note to me, ‘You’re talking to a Brooklyn jury. They’re very smart, and you’re pronouncing Nostrand Avenue wrong?’”

‘The World Comes In Here’

Kramer was born in Bayonne, New Jersey, to a housewife mother and father in the manufacturing business, although after a heart attack, his father bought a liquor store and ran that instead. Kramer was 12 when the family moved to a neighborhood in East Flatbush that was called Pigtown, near the former location of Ebbets Field and which has since been renamed Wingate.

The family moved to Flatbush in 1950, where Kramer lived at several addresses over the next 30 years.

Early on, Kramer knew he wanted to become a lawyer, and he graduated from New York University School of Law in 1964. Virtually all of his professional life has been in Downtown Brooklyn, including stints at the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of New York and an insurance company also in the neighborhood.

“In the 1960s, I was once cautioned, ‘Don’t go below Atlantic Avenue,’” Kramer recalled, laughing.

In 1979, he ran successfully for a judicial seat in Brooklyn Civil Court in what he called an “extremely hotly contested primary” for six countywide Democratic nominations.

Becoming a judge meant leaving behind work on the Community Board, a girl’s yeshiva he helped found and other community activities.

“There is a monastic element to being a judge,” he said. “You just can’t do that kind of stuff and be a judge anymore.”

But Kramer did not want for interesting cases. As he put it, “The world comes in here.”

One notable case before Kramer involved whether the Bensonhurst Flames, a popular basketball team in the Catholic Youth Organization league, could sue the church to continue playing in their facilities after the church dropped the team from the organization. Kramer ultimately, and somewhat unpopularly, ruled that the decision-making capability belonged only to the church.

There was the case of a “livid” dog-owner who sued the city after his pedigreed dog for breeding was let outside by a sitter — and got neutered after dog-catchers assumed it was a stray.

In another dramatic case, a witness in a robbery trial interrupted his own testimony to point out the culprit — a man who had just walked into the courtroom.

“That was crazy,” Kramer murmured, remembering the case. “There are stories you just don’t see anywhere else.”

At one point, Kramer was entrusted with making every polling site in New York City handicapped-accessible in a Board of Elections case, back when Justice Morgenstern was his law secretary.

Kramer pored over maps of the city for every single polling site, Morgenstern recalled, and then they toured the boroughs, inspecting each and every location for proper signage and preparation for the handicapped.

Morgenstern also said they handled hundreds of narcotics cases. What most disturbed Kramer, she said, was how drug dealers corrupted their own communities.

On the other hand, the judge did try to help some defendants who were before him with rehabilitation and alternatives to incarceration — starting with a drug-addicted defendant who had turned state’s evidence. Kramer insisted on finding a residential program for the defendant that would help improve his life.

“I developed a system which took a nonviolent drug-addicted dealer, required he verbally make a promise that he could clean up without any more criminal activity, and if he cleaned himself up from drugs, I would give him a non-jail sentence. The ultimate development, years later, was the Drug Court … and its descendants is what you see all over the state of New York,” Kramer recalled. “When I  leave the bench, that will be one of my biggest ones [achievements].”

Sentinels of the Wild West

“Every judge in his or her own way is acting as a sentinel for the community,” Kramer said. “They’re also a standard reflecting community values, and if they’re not, they should be.”

Indeed, there’s been no shortage of wild cases needing strong sentinels in Brooklyn Supreme Court over the years.

About a decade ago, Kramer and Kings County Supreme Court Justice Carolyn Demarest started a committee to review foreclosures.

“We had a problem in Brooklyn,” Kramer said of the foreclosure crisis. “As we started to look at [foreclosures], we started to see a pattern of what I will call fraud, neglect, missing documents, failing to properly notify homeowners — and this was well before any of  these things hit the headlines.”

Kramer and Demarest made recommendations to the state legislature about foreclosures, some of which were made into law, such as mandatory conferences to give homeowners a chance at negotiation.

“Judge Kramer is a very thoughtful and brilliant jurist,” Justice Demarest said. “He is unafraid to take somewhat unusual positions. In doing so he may appear to be outside the parameters, but in the long run it often turns out to be the vanguard of something that will change the entire system.”

Nevertheless, shady mortgage dealings were rampant in Brooklyn due to various loopholes.

“It was the Wild West five years ago,” Kramer said. “Some guy got a mortgage on an old synagogue in Borough Park. Suddenly another guy decides to take out a mortgage on his neighbor’s house. People were doing strange, crazy things. As a fellow said, ‘You can do anything with the right set of papers.’”

Luckily for Brooklyn, Kramer was there, helping to prevent things from spiraling out of control. Across the borough, things never got as bad as that rubble-strewn lot in Brownsville that he still recalls so well.

“When you do mortgages and foreclosures, you have to accommodate both parties and follow the law. You have to remember who you are and why we’re here. Obviously, we’re here to do justice. But, in your role as a public servant to the community, you have to look at the effect of what you’re doing on the community.

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