Justice Reichbach, 65, marched to the beat of his own gavel

July 16, 2012 Brooklyn Eagle Staff
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By Raanan Geberer

Brooklyn Daily Eagle

Tributes poured in yesterday for the late Brooklyn Supreme Court Justice Gustin Reichbach, who died Saturday after suffering from pancreatic cancer. He was 65.

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A service was held on Sunday at Congregation Mount Sinai in Brooklyn Heights, where scores of people praised this judge who was known for not being afraid of controversy, but was always respected by his fellow members of the legal profession.

Rabbi Joseph Potasnik, one of several people who spoke at the funeral, told the Brooklyn Eagle that Reichbach was “more than one person. He was an exceptional human being, a very independent judge, and not afraid to take a stand on an issue.”

Potasnik, who said Reichbach’s ideals were very much in line with the prophetic tradition of Judaism, said, “He never tried to hide his background [as an anti-Vietnam War leader and member of the radical Students for a Democratic Society in the 1960s]. In fact, that delayed his admission to the Bar.

“He and former Republican Gov. George Pataki were both in Columbia Law School at the same time, but on opposite sides of the barricades.”

Reichbach, a Boerum Hill resident, endured a double tragedy last year. Not only was he forced to battle against cancer, but his daughter, Hope, 22, an aide to Councilman Steve Levin (D-Brooklyn Heights), died suddenly in April 2011, reportedly because of an accidental overdose of prescription drugs.

Hope, thought of as a rising political star, first helped out in one of her father’s campaigns at the age of 10. She later ran unsuccessfully for district leader against incumbent Joanne Simon. She also helped several local charities.  

In May 2011, Justice Reichbach and his wife, Ellen Meyers, helped to plant a memorial tree in Columbus Park, near the Brooklyn Supreme Courthouse, in memory of Hope.

Councilman Levin, who was close to the entire family, said yesterday, “Judge Reichbach was one of my heroes, both on a personal level and for what he did in his career. He was a really tough guy who had more than his fair share of adversity, but he met that adversity with real courage.”

Justice Reichbach, center, is seen here at Gleason's Gym with his daughter Hope, also deceased. Photo by Samuel Newhouse.

Reichbach created a stir in May when he wrote an opinion piece for the New York Times called “A Judge’s Plea for Pot.

In the essay, which advocated the use of medical marijuana as a way to help stave off pain, Reichbach revealed that his cancer forced him to wear a pump that slowly injected chemotherapy drugs into his body, and that he was constantly afflicted by nausea and pain.

“Inhaled marijuana is the only medicine that gives me some relief from nausea, stimulates my appetite and makes it easier to fall asleep,” wrote Reichbach, who was then a patient at Memorial-Sloan Kettering Cancer Center.

The Daily News report on the Times column was headlined, “Why this judge is a stoner: A Brooklyn judge has given new meaning to the High Court.”

Reichbach was respected by defense attorneys, prosecutors and fellow judges alike.

Robert Gershon, head of the Kings County Criminal Bar Association, which once named Reichbach its Judge of the Year, told the Eagle that Reichbach was “one of the best judges in Kings County. He searched for what he thought was right, and then he followed through and did it.”

District Attorney Charles J. Hynes said in a statement, “Judge Reichbach was a man whose academic, professional and personal integrity was never challenged. His passing is a great loss to the legal profession.”

And  Barry Kamins, Kings County administrative judge for criminal matters, told the Eagle, “He was a judge of great integrity and scholarship and an extremely dedicated public servant who always put the interest of the court before himself.”

Reichbach, who grew up in Brooklyn, attended SUNY at Buffalo, then Columbia Law School. After working for nearly two decades as an attorney in private practice, he became a Brooklyn Civil Court judge in 1991 and was elected to the state Supreme Court in 1999.

On the bench, Reichbach presided over a wide variety of cases.

Among them was a heated argument over the NBA All-Star Game that ended up as a murder; a bar-mitzvah tutor accused of sexually abusing two boys; a police officer accused of planting crack cocaine on an unsuspecting couple; and a Bedford-Stuyvesant father and his girlfriend who tortured and sodomized a 3-year-old boy until he died.

In 2011, when Reichbach sentenced to just six months in prison and five years probation a Naval reservist who sold a gun to an undercover policeman in Brownsville, he was criticized harshly by Hynes and Police Commissioner Ray Kelly for his leniency.

“It’s an absolute outrage,” Hynes said. “He should be ashamed of himself.”

One of the most high-profile cases over which Reichbach presided was that of former FBI agent Lindley DeVecchio, accused of helping Mafia informant Gregory Scarpa to such an extent that he provided an informant with tips about his rivals that led to several murders.

The case, which was largely based on testimony by Scarpa’s girlfriend, was dismissed when an earlier interview with the girlfriend, in which she denied that Scarpa had been involved with the murders, came to light.

In 2003, Reichbach took leave of his judgeship in Brooklyn to preside over war-crimes trials in Kosovo for the United Nations.

Clem Richardson of the Daily News, writing in January 2004, said, “Kosovo officials were impressed enough with Reichbach’s mastery of the criminal proceedings of their judicial system to appoint him a permanent member of the Kosovo Supreme Court.”

Reichbach is survived by his wife, a longtime advocate for teachers and public schools; and a brother, who lives in Israel.

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