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Judge Firetog’s last day, a reflection on 35 years of justice

December 22, 2017 By Paul Frangipane Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Acting Supreme Court Justice Neil Firetog sits in his chambers on the last week of his career. Eagle photo by Paul Frangipane
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Brooklyn Supreme Court Justice Neil Firetog is an example of a kid who knew exactly what he wanted to be. As far back as seventh grade, when he defended a classmate accused of killing the class fish, he always wanted to be a lawyer. Nearly 58 years later, he prepared for his final homicide trial, which ended with a jury bringing in a guilty verdict.

It’s not that the judge wants to step away from the bench. His retirement is much to the chagrin of the waves of prosecutors, defense attorneys, fellow judges and the family he’s created in his courtroom, but at the age of 70 he is forced to step away.

Friday will be his last day as a judge in nearly 35 years.

“In losing Judge Firetog, the Supreme Court loses institutional knowledge and experience that cannot be easily replaced,” said Michael Farkas, immediate past president of the Kings County Criminal Bar Association (KCCBA), former homicide prosecutor and current criminal defender.

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Current KCCBA President Michael Cibella referred to Firetog as a “legend” and Administrative Judge Matthew D’Emic called him one of the court’s best judges.

“He has handled some very tough cases and done it with great knowledge of the law and a grasp of what it means to be a judge,” D’Emic said.

Those who have worked with him can’t picture a court without Firetog, but for him, his constant career in the law was never about the praise, rather, it was always about that fish.

“I remember in grade school being a defense attorney, defending this kid that was accused of keeping the heater on in the fish tank, causing our fish to die in the classroom,” Firetog told the Brooklyn Eagle, arm draped over his bench and gazing across his courtroom. “And I defended it saying, ‘Look, anyone could have put the plug back in. It could have been this, it could have been that.’” It’s a timeless maxim and basic right in our justice system: Innocent until proven guilty.

The excitement of defending a case, sparked by the many criminal justice television shows of his time, is what drew him to the Brooklyn DA’s Office, then across the street to the U.S. Attorney’s Office, back to the bench in criminal court and up to the 21st floor of the Jay Street Supreme Courthouse.

Firetog adds to a list of 12 judges to leave the court in the last three years, leaving an environment where the once 200-plus ranks of court officers has dwindled to just a little more than 100.

To fill his space in the homicide part starting in the new year will be Acting Supreme Court Justice Vincent Del Giudice, a judge of 15 years.

The New York State Constitution set an age limit of 70 for judges just after the Civil War when people were on average living shorter lives, according to a New York Times report. Proponents of a defeated 2013 amendment to raise the retirement age to 80 argued modern health has since evolved and judges are peaking later in their careers.

In reaching a mastery of his craft, Firetog would agree.

“I’ve seen it all, I’m at the top of my game — knock on wood — I’m in good health and good mental condition. There’s absolutely no reason I shouldn’t be able to continue,” he said.

While he accepts his retirement, however, his 24th floor chambers were strewn with flattened and half-filled boxes on his last week, signifying his biggest problem: packing away a decadeslong career.

Born in Manhattan and raised in Brooklyn, he attended college at the University of Michigan, only to return to his old stomping grounds in New York.

He landed his first job at the Major Offense Bureau of the Brooklyn District Attorney’s Office in 1972, trying cases for five years with large conviction rates until a supervisor position left him wanting more.

For the first time, Brooklyn’s Eastern District of New York (EDNY) was hiring ex-prosecutors and Firetog ended up on the U.S. Attorney’s Organized Crime and Racketeering Strike Force from 1977 to 1983.

With money and power behind his federal prosecutor gig, he traveled across the country securing witnesses in organized crime cases and in particular, the last of the ABSCAM cases that found government officials littered with corruption.

As he began burning out from the prosecutorial positions, Mayor Edward Koch announced he was looking for young prosecutors to be judges. So Assistant U.S. Attorney Firetog officially became the youngest judge appointed at Brooklyn Criminal Court before quickly being promoted to acting Supreme Court justice in 1990.

“It’s just about being at the right place at the right time,” Firetog said multiple times, chuckling in reminiscence.

His current position, where he would eventually try more than 100 homicides to date, started when he became administrative judge, creating the homicide part in 2007 as a place where the DA’s Homicide Bureau could go to prepare cases.

“When it was time to move on, I had created this Homicide Part that I was doing just calendar, so when I left being the [administrative judge], and started trying cases it worked out perfectly and so for the last 10 years, I’ve been trying homicides and having a grand time,” he said next to his crew, who have been with him since the part’s inception.

Starting at a time when there were 223 homicides a year in Brooklyn, compared to the current 267 citywide, and gathering experience from strict federal practices, the judge developed a knack for the high-profile part.

“You gotta treat the family with respect, as the victim, and you gotta treat the defendant and his family with respect,” he said about dealing with emotional moments. “They can’t feel that the system’s out to get them.”

When things get out of hand, like an upset family breaking the court door after a verdict, Firetog sits back and lets his crew of Sgt. Erica Mercado, Keith Gutzlaff, Louis Henry and various other court officers take over.

Henry says a key to keeping the part on simmer is the judge’s respect for the defendants, keeping his ego aside as he constantly reminds them of their rights in proceedings.

That was tested in his last month when a man who murdered three people refused to leave his court cell for his life sentence and when the family of an ironworker who was crushed under his own truck cursed in court halls at their idea of a low sentence.

Still, in his last week, he maintained the career-long demeanor that leaves him leaning back in his chair with his hands folded behind his head as parties make motions or swiftly denying those motions when they lack proper argument.

As attorneys squandered over an adjournment date during his last week, he blurted out, “That’s a minute of my life I will never get back. Just give me a date!” before letting a smirk fly.

That in an essence is Firetog: quick, demanding and serious on the bench, but ready to pick up his coffee mug and laugh with colleagues on the way up to his chambers.

To his law secretary Marcia Margolin, 64, who will be retiring with him, he is her “work husband.”

“It was the best experience of my life,” she said about her roughly 28 years at the judge’s side, frequently helping him at the bench.

To Stuart Smith, his most recent court clerk of 15 months, he’s the name who was mystified in headlines.

“This is probably going to be the highlight of my career as far as being always able to say that’s the guy who I saw in the newspapers … I got to work for him,” Smith said.

To the judge himself, he’s the sibling that got lucky enough to enjoy every day of his work, telling of his brother and sister, “They have the beauty and the brains. I got the luck. I’ve just been damn lucky.”

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  1. Larry Green

    Neil was my Senior Patrol Leader in our Scout troop, Troop 242 Temple Sinai in Roslyn Heights, Long Island. Two years my senior, he always just kinda mystified me with an atractive quality of je ne sais quoi.