Amon graces Brooklyn courthouse with Southern charm and intellectual rigor
A resident of Brooklyn’s federal court system for close to three decades, Chief Judge Carol Amon has set deep legal roots in Brooklyn Heights. With a soft Virginian accent, Amon can command jurisprudence as well the history of the Eastern District court, which is set to celebrate its 150th anniversary in March 2015.
Amon was introduced to Brooklyn Heights very early after her family’s move to New York.
“When my husband and I first moved to New York, I was working in the Southern District [in Manhattan],” the judge told the Eagle. A fated interview not only changed Amon’s borough of residence, but also set the stage for long-term commitment to Brooklyn’s federal court and love for Brooklyn Heights.
“We had to move to Brooklyn,” the judge recounted. “I interviewed to be a special assistant for the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of New York, and at that time, you had to live in the district within which your court sat.”
Her interview was with Judge Raymond Dearie, who at the time was the chief of the Appeals Division for the Eastern District. Dearie is now a senior judge for the very court that Amon presides over.
“[My husband and I] came to Brooklyn Heights, and we just loved it. There was never any other neighborhood we wanted to be in,” she said. “It is a neighborhood that is instantly accepting.”
The progressive nature of Brooklyn Heights and the federal court that it houses did not go unnoticed by Amon, who remembers a time when the legal profession was not so inviting.
“When I started law school, it was different than what it is today,” Amon noted. “There were only 20 women in a class of two or three hundred and that was considered an enormous amount.”
Amon recalls a moment while at the University of Virginia (UVA) Law School where her presence as a woman was received with “minor resistance” from some upperclassman.
“I had been told that I took the spot of a male student,” she said. The decorous judge did not let that deter her goals, snapping back that this imaginary male student “must not have been that smart because it was harder for me, as a woman, to get into law school than it was for a man.”
During her time both on the bench and as chief judge, Amon has noticed the complexion of the Brooklyn federal court change in a way she may not have imagined while at UVA.
“The court has changed, and the largest change seen is the amount of women active in the Eastern District,” Amon said. “What has changed over the number of years is the number of women on the court. The majority of the active members of our court are women.”
Brooklyn’s federal court has also seen three African-American judges — Honorables William Kuntz, III, Sterling Johnson and Margo Brodie — and the first openly gay Asian-American woman — Hon. Pamela Chen — ascend to the bench in recent years.
As chief judge, Amon has no say in who gets appointed to the bench, but is nevertheless proud of the diversity that has occurred during her tenure.
“We have a very diverse court and it does mirror the diversity of our district,” Amon said with a display of pride.
Brooklyn’s a mixed bag
As a judge in one of the nation’s busiest federal courts, Amon is faced with an array of case issues and heightened concerns for the safety of her court as well as its surrounding Brooklyn Heights neighborhood.
On occasion, the Brooklyn court has had to increase security due to either the nature of the trial or merely the number of defendants on a case.
“We have had cases with as many as 10 defendants … and we have also been the court of a few terrorism trials,” she said.
In January, the court presided over the trial of a Long Island man accused of conspiring to kill an Eastern District judge and assistant U.S. attorney. “We do on occasion have threats that will require more security in and outside of the court,” Amon said.
The most recent display of an increased presence of U.S. marshals was the courtroom of Brooklyn federal Judge Nicholas Garaufis as he handled the case of Ronald Herron, a high-ranking member of the Bloods — a violent street gang — who was found guilty of three counts of murder. According to the New York Daily News, during Herron’s trial Garaufis was shadowed by a U.S. marshal and extra security crowded the courtroom in June when the Herron verdict was read.
But for Amon, this is just a part of the excitement that keeps her dedicated to her Brooklyn court.
“That is what makes the job interesting,” noted the judge. “Because you have a mix of the intellectual side when you are reading motions and handing down decisions and with criminal trials it is more ‘cops and robbers.’”
Amon is particular in how she views her role as chief judge as well as how she runs her Brooklyn courtroom.
“My biggest concern in a criminal trial is that the jury’s time is not wasted.” Her concern for the jury’s time is a secret tactic to get lawyers into agreement rather than arguing over minor matters. “I often tell attorneys that we can discuss an issue early in the morning before the jury comes in or after 5 p.m. when the jury has gone for the day.
“You would be surprised as to how many issues get resolved at a quicker speed.”
Time efficiency, however, does not take away from procedural justice in Amon’s courtroom.
“Every time you have a trial, even the simplest trial, something will happen. Something will be different than the trial before.”
For Amon, it is the trial and its theatrical drama that requires a substantial level of intellectual fortitude and patience. “What I think is the most interesting is presiding over trials — because trials are very much a drama and you have a responsibility to move the case along,” she said. “Your level of concentration is also very high. Nothing can get past you.”
During one particular trial, after a jury returned a verdict of not guilty, Amon instinctively polled the jury. Her instincts proved right. Despite a supposed unanimous verdict, one polled juror announced that she thought the defendant was guilty. “That was a problem. I had to send the jury back in for further deliberations,” Amon said, relaying how in-tune she is with the pulse of her jury trials.
“It’s an entirely different skill set running a court room and to me that’s what makes it fascinating.”
Forever in Brooklyn
Although a Southerner by birth, Amon sees herself in Brooklyn for the long haul.
“Most of the judges that leave our court are taken out feet first,” Amon joked about her desire to stay on the federal bench in Brooklyn. A Brooklyn trend, it appears.
Judges in the Eastern District keep an active caseload even with a senior status.
“There is an interesting statistic about the Eastern District Court: We have five judges who have served in World War II,” Amon said, referring to Honorables Jack Weinstein, Arthur Spatt, Leonard Wexler, I. Leo Glasser and Thomas Platt.
“They all have significant caseloads and are more than up to the job.” Weinstein has made news recently in an unusual decision, where, without prompt from either defense counsel or the prosecution, he acted to correct a possible injustice on a case he may have improperly ruled on.
“Hopefully I will be one of them,” Amon said, referring to the senior judges in her court. “I love Brooklyn, and I love the job that I have. This is this reason I will remain.”
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