Regular Politics: Judge Reichbach

Regular Politics: Judge Reichbach

P. Berman: On Judge Reichbach

On Saturday, July 14, a New York State Supreme Court judge named Gustin L. Reichbach succumbed to cancer. On Sunday his funeral service took place at a synagogue in Brooklyn Heights. And the first and most eloquent of the speakers to address the mourners was a politician named Vito Lopez, who holds the office of New York State Assemblyman from Bushwick, Brooklyn, and the still more exalted office of chairman of the Democratic Party of Kings County, otherwise known as Brooklyn Democratic boss, whose powers are myriad, vast, and rooted in affairs so profoundly local as to be incomprehensible. The boss is known, for instance, to influence the election of minor officials called District Leaders, who are unpaid yet nonetheless have the power to select the modestly paid workers who supervise the voting on Election Day. And God knows what happens next, except that everyone recognizes that, when the Brooklyn Democratic boss presides over a nonprofit organization, the state and municipal contracts descending upon the organization tend to be profitable indeed, even if the Ridgewood Bushwick Senior Citizens Council is currently under investigation. And still larger contracts come into play. The very skyline is at stake. And, lo, prominently mentioned at Gus Reichbach’s funeral was a man named Bruce Ratner, who, in the Brooklyn of our time, is widely known—reviled!—as the preeminent developer, the destroyer of Brooklyn’s antique charm (as per his detractors), or else the creator of jobs (as per his admirers) and the benefactor of basketball (objectively true). And, to be sure, Bruce Ratner turns out to have been a law school roommate of Gustin L. Reichbach. And Lopez made a point in his funeral oration of invoking Bruce Ratner’s influence in the most affectionate of terms, and the name of George Pataki, the former Republican governor of New York, came up, whom Bruce Ratner evidently lobbied on behalf of the judicial career of Gus Reichbach, and no name was left unsaid.

Lopez recounted to the mourners how Gus Reichbach entered what Lopez described as “regular politics,” a phrase of art. Long ago Lopez was a reform-minded insurgent Democrat who yearned to overthrow the corrupt Brooklyn political machine and replace it with something more Lopezian, and he fielded candidates in a primary election. There was an opening for a civil court judge candidacy in a largely Hispanic district, where the chances of defeating the machine candidate were deemed to be nil. Somebody brought to Lopez’s attention the advisability of meeting Gustin L. Reichbach, who had never run for office but did have a law degree and was known to be the terror of landlords. Lopez granted Reichbach an audience.

The interview was evidently memorable. Reichbach acknowledged to Lopez a few biographical anomalies that might normally be considered obstacles to a successful political career—namely, a past on the ultra-left in the later 1960s and after. The acknowledgement was candid on Reichbach’s part, but then again, considering his notoriety, candor was the only option. During the years around 1968 an organization called Students for Democratic Society flourished at Columbia University, and SDS succeeded in igniting a student uprising, which briefly transformed the organization into a genuine force across large swathes of Upper Manhattan. Enormous blue phalanxes of the New York Police Department occupied entire city blocks for a while in order to prevent SDS and its allies from spreading their insurrection any further. Newsweek devoted a cover to a photo of SDS’s principal leader, Mark Rudd, scuffling with the helmeted police. And if you look up the photo (Rudd has reproduced it in his reliable memoir, Underground: My Life with SDS and the Weathermen), you will see, directly in front of Rudd himself, the cherubic face and golden tousled locks of a very young Gus Reichbach, who was likewise a leader of the student organization.

Rudd and several other SDSers went on to organize something called the Weathermen, or Weather Underground, in order to foment a guerrilla war in the United States and bring about a communist revolution, which was not too shrewd an idea, as Rudd ultimately came to acknowledge with a lot of anguish; and Reichbach declined to join. In the Columbia chapter of SDS Reichbach’s refusal was a blow to the guerrilla project, given that, from his lofty position as a somewhat older law school student, he exercised an influence, perhaps without knowing it, over his younger undergraduate admirers. Still, he remained on friendly terms with any number of SDSers who did join the underground. Nor did his comradely relations with Abbie Hoffman, the Yippie, come to an end during the period when Abbie likewise went on the lam. And it was true that Gus Reichbach rioted in the streets of Chicago in 1968, and true that, given his political proclivities, the authorities at Columbia Law School held official hearings into his behavior. The hearings themselves were riotously disrupted by still other members of SDS, who heckled and mooned in solidarity with Brother Reichbach.

It may even be that, at one of those hearings, someone ended up treading upon the hearings table, kicking papers—though I confess that, in my capacity as historian and even memoirist of these events, not to mention my capacity in later years as sidewalk hobnobber with the judge, I am uncertain of this detail. But there is no question that, after Reichbach had somehow graduated from law school and had passed the bar exam, the New York Bar Committee on Character and Fitness took a dim view of his activities, and the committee stuck to its view, and only after a couple of punitive years was he admitted to the bar. This was a lot to have to confess to Assemblyman Vito Lopez. There was more, too, e.g, Reichbach’s co-authorship, together with more than one future member of the Weather Underground, of a book on what to do if the police get their hands on you, a sort of street rioter’s guide.

Vito Lopez is, however, a tolerant man. He is a friendly, generous, and forgiving man, warm and accepting. He is a peaceful man. He himself would never participate in a riot. He is also a focused man, and, during his interview with Gustin L. Reichbach, he was focused on finding a candidate to run for Brooklyn civil court judge. He did not fail to take in the gist of Gus’s confession. In his funeral speech, Lopez acknowledged to the mourners that Gus Reichbach’s leftism was of a distinctly robust sort, such that Lopez scarcely knew how to express how extreme it was, until finally he summed up the situation by conceding that Gustin L. Reichbach was not just an opponent of the war in Vietnam but “burned everything possible.” None of this struck Vito Lopez as an obstacle to a career in “regular politics.” From Lopez’s perspective, as expressed in the funeral oration, the crucial point needing clarification was Reichbach’s personal reliability. So Lopez posed a question. Suppose that, on the basis of his superior political experience, Lopez were to make a friendly suggestion to Reichbach, whose experience was nonexistent—could Reichbach be counted on to accept the friendly suggestion?

Lopez in those years, before he had defeated and crushed most of his opponents, was a protégé of a distinguished civic leader named Tony Genovese, of the Thomas Jefferson Democratic Club in Canarsie. Lopez consulted with Genovese on the question of whether to run Gustin L. Reichbach for civil court judge. Genovese drew on his own political experience, which was superior even to Lopez’s, and offered his own friendly suggestion. He instructed Lopez to order Reichbach to cut his hair. Lopez faithfully passed along the suggestion. Reichbach cut his hair—not by a lot. Still, even a modest trim displayed the sort of collegiality that mattered to the leadership of the Thomas Jefferson Democratic Club. And Lopez offered his own suggestion. It was a demand that Reichbach obey the ways of politics. Lopez spelled out what this meant. You knock on a door. You meet the people inside. You make careful note of whether the people have a dog or a cat. The next day, you send a letter saying, “What a nice dog!” Reichbach agreed to follow these instructions.

His campaign ran into a difficulty. Part of the district was populated by conservative Italians, and Reichbach did not know what to say to these people. Lopez knew what to say. He instructed Reichbach to talk about himself. I know that Reichbach followed this suggestion because, a few years later, he recounted the same story to me, except without revealing that Vito Lopez was the source of his political wisdom. Reichbach explained that, in campaigning among the conservative Italian ladies of Brooklyn, he said nothing at all about his larger ideas and principles and, instead, spoke about his Brooklyn childhood, his baby daughter, his wife, and the house he had bought. This was everything the ladies wanted to know. The ladies were keen to discover whether he was a nice person, and they concluded in his favor and were altogether delighted. He himself was delighted, and he passed along the story almost bubbling with joy. It was not that he had figured out how to deceive the conservative voters. He had figured out something else, which was that, in “regular politics,” people vote for a human being, not for an ideology, and he beamed with happiness because he had come to love “regular politics.”

He won the election by 141 votes. It is easy to imagine that his golden tousled locks had something to do it, even in a trimmed version. His speaking accent, in its local authenticity, may also have inspired confidence. In later years the sheen went out of the locks, but the angelic rumpling remained, not to mention the accent, and people still seemed to like him, such that ultimately he was elected to his lofty position on the State Supreme Court. Readers of the Daily News and the New York Post will know that Judge Reichbach was not always beloved by the New York City Police Department, nor by the prosecutor’s office. He outraged the police department not long ago by granting bail to someone who was said to have wounded a policeman with a gun. The defendant was only seventeen years old, though, and his family put up a house in Florida as part of the bail, and Judge Reichbach, in his capacity as human being, appears to have relied on his own instincts, which in this instance led him to leniency. Sometimes he did send people to jail. He confided to me on the sidewalk one day that he was tortured internally by the moral horrors of his job, after he had ascended to the State Supreme Court—the murder cases he was obliged to oversee, the terribleness of human behavior that he observed, the pressure that he felt to avoid doing a dreadful thing by sending someone to jail unnecessarily, and likewise the pressure to avoid damaging society by allowing dreadful criminals to go unpunished. The horrors and pressures plagued him at night. He also wrote opinions that were evidently never overturned.

The best-known thing he ever did was early in his judicial career, during a period when he was night-court criminal judge. Prostitutes were regularly brought before the bench and he responded by lecturing them about public health and directing them to a table in the courtroom corridor where people were giving away condoms for free. Here was the influence of the ultra-Left of long ago—a super-radicalism whose deepest instinct was always theatrical. Judge Reichbach was of course wise and far-seeing in delivering his lectures to the prostitutes and distributing the condoms, and if the tabloids saw a chance to sell newspapers by making fun of him, why, this only shows that, when a political issue has been rightly chosen, theatricality is all to the good. The city of New York spent a solid day or two usefully contemplating Judge Reichbach and his views on public health and condoms. His one mistake was to fail to alert his colleagues and superiors in the judiciary about his plans. The colleagues and superiors were upset. Only, if he had duly apprised everyone of his intentions, would they have let him get away with it? In any case, he was undiscouraged, and the same flare for dramatic gestures accounted for the most recent of his notorious actions. This was an op-ed that he published in the New York Times in May on the medical uses of marijuana.

His cancer was pretty far gone by then. He had been suffering for more than three years from the illness and also from the treatments, which are ghastly. And, like many other people with cancer, he had discovered that marijuana was the only drug that allowed him to eat and sleep. So he confessed to puffing marijuana in his op-ed, and he implored the State of New York to reconsider its anti-marijuana laws, on strictly medical and human rights grounds. This was not a small thing to do. The confession about taking illegal drugs could be regarded as an expression of disrespect for the law, therefore as an act of civil disobedience on the part of a State Supreme Court judge—which, as the New York Law Journal has explained in regard to Judge Reichbach, is the sort of thing that comes up for routine examination by an entity called the Commission on Judicial Conduct. The Law Journal quoted a former member of the commission saying that Reichbach “has a problem.”

Reichbach knew he had a problem. This time he thoughtfully prepared his courthouse colleagues for the op-ed, instead of springing it on them, as he had done with the condoms. The op-ed was his finest moment. He wrote it, after all, for other people and not for himself, given that his friends had already figured out how to get hold of the drug and smuggle it to him. He had come to command a tone of grandeur. “It is to help all who have been affected by cancer, and those who will come after, that I now speak.” He invoked his “fellow cancer sufferers.” He was a man of solidarities to the end.

If you think of his early radicalism as a commitment to obstreperousness on matters of keen belief, then he was unfailingly faithful to his origins. Still, it is a little surprising to look back on his career in the light of what happened to everyone else in his world of the ultra-radical Left of long ago. The Columbia University chapter of SDS contained, in its heyday, a handful of leaders and perhaps seventy-five core members, surrounded by a couple of hundred other students and neighborhood hangers-on, which is to say, a sizable number of people. Those few hundred people achieved their successes by propounding grandiose left-wing ideas about politics and the need for radical change. And yet, of those many SDSers at Columbia, the only person who went on to acquire a genuinely substantial measure of political power was Gus Reichbach. By political power, I mean the kind of power that derives from “regular politics,” and not from mere success, no matter how large the success, in some professional field or another.

The first event to take place at the funeral, prior to the speeches, was a mini-parade by an eight-person color guard of the New York State Court police department, who marched up the aisle in tiny half-steps, as if doing a little dance, and then marched back down the aisle again, bearing a droopy American flag. Each of the members of the guard clutched some sort of rifle, which, to unschooled eyes, looked like relics from the War of 1812. The flag symbolized the United States. But what did those odd-looking rifles symbolize? They did not symbolize. They embodied. The spectacle of those rifles, antique or otherwise, led you to appreciate that, when the late Judge Reichbach sentenced somebody to jail, the prison gates swung open, and armed and uniformed people enforced his writ. Nor did Reichbach exercise this kind of power only in the United States.

In 1999, NATO launched launch military attacks on the armed forces of Serbian nationalism in order to protect the endangered Albanian population of Kosovo province. The attacks were successful, and, after the Serbian nationalist forces had withdrawn from the province, a NATO army, which soon became a United Nations army, took command of the province. Gus Reichbach was recruited to serve as a Kosovo judge under the UN auspices, and he spent a few months there. His duties, as he explained in still another sidewalk conversation, were to administer justice regardless of ethnicity—to ensure that Serbs and Kosovar Albanians and everyone else were judged alike, given that crimes in the Balkans had been committed by everybody, even if not by everybody in equal proportions.

Here was another stage in the career of a man of power—though, like any number of his Brooklyn court decisions, his career in Kosovo remained in keeping with a certain kind of background on the Left. The UN administrator in Kosovo was Bernard Kouchner, a French Socialist who went on to help found Doctors Without Borders and ultimately became the foreign minister of France—and Kouchner, during his period as UN administrator in Kosovo, was keenly aware of the ’68 backgrounds of the members of his administrative team. I have wondered just now if Kouchner was ever aware of the leftist credentials of one of his Kosovo court judges from America. Kouchner responded to my question by saying that he was uncertain if he had the right person in mind, but, yes, he did recall an American who was—if I may slightly polish Kouchner’s English—“a very good activist and a very politically incorrect judge. That is to say, an excellent ‘68er and `camarade.’” “Courageous,” too—which suggests that Kouchner was, in fact, thinking of the right person. Perhaps other people who knew Reichbach more intimately in Kosovo will report some day on what he accomplished there.

At the funeral ceremony, three of the speakers lost control of their voices at one moment or another. One of those speakers was Reichbach’s niece, who spoke very well until her remarks veered into a Hebrew prayer, at which point the niece’s voice began to wobble. The transition into Hebrew was what did it to her. A second person who lost control for a brief instant was a lawyer named Barry Schenk, who is known for his brilliant or too-brilliant courtroom defenses of accused persons, notably O.J. Simpson. Schenk was Reichbach’s friend, and he delivered a lively speech that proceeded nicely until his oration reached the word “personal.” This was the word that got to Barry Schenk. He paused soberly before pronouncing the word.

The third speaker who needed to pull himself together was Vito Lopez. This was surprising, given that, over the decades, Lopez has delivered doubtless thousands of speeches and has attended an infinity of funerals. Nonetheless, at one moment in his speech Lopez had occasion to mention Judge Reichbach’s home address, on Bond Street, and the Democratic boss discovered that, in order to continue his speech, he had to pause ever so briefly and bring his emotions under control. Only then could he name the street. What got to him were the streets of Brooklyn.

Paul Berman is the author of a two-volume history of the Generation of 1968 and its political trajectory in different parts of the world, A Tale of Two Utopias and Power and the Idealists.

Photo of Bond St in Boerum Hill, Brooklyn, by M. Jeremy Goldman, 2007, via Flickr creative commons