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From immigrant to administrative judge: Legal community sends off Justice Michael Pesce after nearly 50 years of service

January 31, 2020 Rob Abruzzese
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Justice Michael Pesce came to the United States from Italy when he was just 12 years old and spoke no English. On Wednesday, he ended his almost 50-year career in public service with a retirement party at the Water Club in Manhattan where nearly 300 members of the legal community, friends and family members were on hand to say goodbye.

“What a life,” Hon. Lawrence Knipel said of Justice Pesce. “He was an immigrant, lawyer, state assemblyman, Civil Court judge, Supreme Court judge, administrative judge and finally presiding justice of our Appellate Term. All of these titles are impressive, but Michael is all the more impressive because he made each one meaningful.

Hon. Miriam Cyrulnik got her start as a clerk for Justice Pesce in the 1980s.

“He was the administrative judge over all of the courts in Brooklyn and Staten Island,” Knipel continued. “For me, he’s the template for judging and administering the court system. Now, it takes three administrators to do that job.”

The event was organized by Marianne Bertuna and the master of ceremonies was Hon. Barry Kamins. Speakers at the event included Hon. Joseph Bruno, Hon. John Leventhal, Hon. Matthew D’Emic, Hon. Lawrence Knipel, Hon. Frank Seddio, Domenick Napoletano, Arthur Aidala, Hon. Miriam Cyrulnik and Justice Pesce’s daughter Vanessa Pesce.

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Half of the speakers ended up roasting Justice Pesce, like Justice Bruno, who teased Justice Pesce for always being so busy, or for thinking that he’s funnier than other people. Justices D’Emic, Kamins and Knipel, all current or former administrative judges in Brooklyn, all claimed that Justice Pesce was their better. And the rest mostly told jokes about his life or shared intimate details that others didn’t know.

Marianne Bertuna helped to organize the party.

“Michael was much more innovative than I and he developed many more programs and initiatives than any other administrative judge,” Justice Kamins said. “I respect the other administrative judges here. Matt, you are terrific. Larry, you are terrific, but stand by what I said.”

Among Pesce’s achievements, he overhauled the court’s interpreter program, he helped design the courthouse at 360 Jay St., and he presided over the creation of the Domestic Violence Court, the Mental Health Court and nearly all of the “problem-solving” courts.

Justice Pesce, a Boys High School and Detroit College of Law graduate, is also known for being an athlete, sailor and cook, although, in his speech, Seddio — another lawyer and former judge known for his culinary abilities — didn’t say who the better cook was. Seddio did tease Justice Pesce for being more concerned about whether or not the food was organic or artisanal than he is.

Hon. John Leventhal and Justice Michael Pesce.

“As an athlete, Mike was a little overrated,” Justice Leventhal joked. “And if you ask him to take you out on his boat, he will interview you and ask for your references as a crew person. Mike is not good at two things in particular — he loves opera, but he can’t sing a damn even though his good friend was Luciano Pavarotti. He’s a terrible elevator operator, but he is a good mountain climber.”

Justice Leventhal then explained that Justice Pesce was once trapped in a courthouse elevator alone on a Sunday night and was forced to pry open the elevator doors and climb to another floor to escape.

Justice Pesce, who is active in a Carroll Gardens Italian-American club for immigrants from Mola di Bari, Italy, became a Legal Aid attorney in the Bronx following law school. He briefly worked as a solo practitioner before he became a four-term Assemblymember prior to being elected to the Civil Court.

Domenick Napoletano got teary-eyed while talking about Justice Pesce, whom he referred to as his older brother.

Justice Pesce later described New York City politics in those days as “war” and recalled the story of his political club on Court Street in Cobble Hill, the Independent Neighborhood Democrats, a group he helped form, that was bombed in 1971. He said a newspaper had called its members fearless, but admitted that most of them were scared, but carried on with their political activities anyway.

“We were running mates on the reform Democratic slate in 1972,” Justice D’Emic recalled. “A year or two later, I took charge of the Young Democrats for Pesce for Congress. Believe me, if he had stayed in that race, he would have been a congressman.”

Many of the speakers said that they felt that Justice Pesce was a part of their family even if he wasn’t. Aidala said that now that he’s not a judge, Justice Pesce is just going to be known as “Uncle Mike” in his house. Napoletano said that Justice Pesce was like his older brother.

Hon. Matthew D’Emic said that Justice Pesce was the best administrative judge that he ever worked for. “He was better than me,” he joked.

“There are two kinds of families, one you are born with and one you develop,” Aidala said. “I’m so blessed because he really became an enormous part of my life.”

Justice Cyrulnik, who served as Justice Pesce’s law clerk for over 20 years, was one of the final speakers. She said that she didn’t want to talk about his many career achievements so instead she told everyone about the Thanksgiving after 9/11 when Justice Pesce bought and delivered dinner to every single court officer on duty that day, because of the 24/7 schedule that resulted from the attack.

“Mike had a rare talent for moving a calendar,” Justice Cyrulnik said. “He could move more cases in 90 minutes than some judges could in an entire morning, some in an entire day.
Mike was a one-man excellence initiative when he came to the Supreme Court in 1984. In 1986, he had an astonishing 52 verdicts to his credit.

From left: Hon. Barry Kamins, Hon. Jeffrey Sunshine, Hon. Michael Pesce and Hon. Nancy Sunshine.

“He never asked more of anyone else than he gave to the job,” Justice Cyrulnik continued. “He was certainly a man of strong opinion, but he respected the expertise of the chief clerks and the other professionals that he worked with. He fought hard on behalf of the judges that he supervised, and he wasn’t afraid to speak truth to power regardless of the cost to himself.”

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