News & Articles
Our New Courthouse By Michael Friedman
Our New Albany County Courthouse
By Michael Friedman, Esq.
Friedman & Molinsek, P.C.
From the May 2012 Newsletter) Our New Albany County Courthouse
“But above all, the courthouse: the center, the focus, the hub; sitting looming in the center of the county's circumference like a single cloud in its ring of horizon, laying its vast shadow to the uttermost rim of horizon; musing, brooding, symbolic and ponderable, tall as a cloud, solid as a rock, dominating all: protector of the weak, judicate and curb of the passions and lusts, repository and guardian of the aspirations and hopes ..." William Faulkner, Requiem for a Nun
“Mere access to the courthouse doors does not by itself assure a proper functioning of the adversary process.” Thurgood Marshall
Originally dedicated in 1916, we can all welcome the restoration of this magnificent edifice. After a six year hiatus, the Albany County Courthouse is again the hub of legal activity for our county. Six years and $53 million after it was closed for renovations, we can now enjoy the splendor of our huge neo-Classic limestone monument, thanks to our friends at BBL Construction Services who held the costs to just under $18 million over the original budget. You know, the people who brought you that bungalow of judicial economy: The Albany County Family Court on Clinton Avenue. On the hill, but on the level, as they say.
This building is truly magnificent, but its greatest asset is not structural. Finally, the civil judiciary and courtrooms of Albany County are under the same roof. For the first time in six years, the judges who preside over our clients’ disputes can convene and learn and dare I say schmooze over the daily business of moving lawsuits through the system. In the past, all Supreme Court Judges comprised a fraternity of sorts, there being no women on the bench thank you very much. Republican or Democrat, Acting, Visiting or Retired, they all met for lunch at The Ambassador on Elk Street to review the news of the day, the foibles of the poor lawyers, the evidentiary and legal issues, and of course the gossip. The younger judges learned at the foot of the masters, and the collective knowledge of the judiciary was passed down bringing certainty and consistency to the practice of law. It was great. Young lawyers were welcomed to the practice with enthusiasm, and older counsel were complemented, lampooned and chastised with good humor and a feeling of camaraderie.
One can only hope that a small part of that feeling resumes with the concentration of our judges and lawyers under one roof. It is an opportunity without parallel. Lawyers used to go to the courthouse to file papers or argue motions, but we would never leave without seeing what was going on in each courtroom. One learned the jury selection and cross examination techniques of the best, and now that opportunity has returned. Just sit in the lovely GAR coffee shop and one is likely to see Judge Graffeo of the Court of Appeals, Justices Malone, Stein, Egan and McCarthy of the Appellate Division, or any one of the myriad Supreme Court and Acting Supreme Court judges for a chat on the day’s happenings. As always, the clerks, court reporters and attendants are the true source of the real happenings of trials in the courtrooms.
After all, this is the place where Daniel Prior made his reputation as the greatest trial attorney of his time. Long before he represented Legs Diamond across the Hudson, his unsuccessful defense of Anna Antonio was one of the great works of legal advocacy in the 20th Century in Albany. One still hears of his defense of Manny Strewell in the O’Connell kidnapping case in the 1930’s. As for me, I remember the best of them in the 1980’s and 1990’s. Who could forget Armand Riccio proclaiming to the media after a conviction of his client, “Today I am ashamed to be a white man.” It was Armand who brought a compact mirror to Judge Clyne’s court because, “Judge, the prosecutor faces the jury and sees the effect of the testimony of any witness; on the other hand I, your honor, can only look at you.” Judge Clyne had Mr. Riccio bring the mirror to the bench. It was smashed by Judge Clyne’s gavel, whereupon Mr. Riccio said, “Your honor, not only is that seven years bad luck, it is reversible error.” How can you not love that?
This was the home of the Appellate Division, Third Department from 1916 until 1972. It was also the site of the famous Amadou Diallo trial, where four New York City police officers were tried in 2000 and the New York City press learned of the Hon. Joseph C. Teresi, who received excellent grades from defense and prosecution alike in his efficient handling of this difficult and contentious trial. During the first day of that trial, I remember freezing outside the courthouse waiting to conference a case before Judge Bernard Malone in some matrimonial matter. When I finally reached the three or four Albany police officers in front of the magnetometer or whatever it was, I was asked what my business as in the courthouse that day. I said, “No justice, no peace” which got me a thorough patting down from a few of Albany’s Finest, but a free pass the next day when my frozen body presented itself at the doors of justice.
This is also the place where the great Justice Edward Conway went down to the cells with a litigant who refused to sign a deed in a divorce matter leading to his civil incarceration. Judge Conway had never sentenced anyone to jail. No, not ever. Judge Conway felt so bad he rode the elevator to the Sheriff’s cells and ultimately said, “Don’t do it for your wife, do it for me. I have never sentenced anyone to jail, and I do not want you to be the first.” The guy signed, of course.
There is so much more to tell: Judge Conway’s jury who awarded the plaintiff, “All of it.” The jury who asked if they could award more than the plaintiff asked for, only to deliver a no cause. When collared by the plaintiff’s attorney, the foreman said, “Counsel, we were never going to give your client any money. We just didn’t know the answer to the question.” The great Bruce Sullivan, who never had a verdict against him for over $100,000, drinking the supposed tainted Coca Cola bottle with a rat in it during summation. The great William Kunstler (with our own Lewis Oliver) defending two men accused of possessing illegal firearms during the famous Apartheid Rugby Tour, otherwise known as the match between the great South African Springboks against the American Eagles at Bleeker Stadium. The jury acquitted the men. Kunstler spent every morning and break reading the Wall Street Journal.
This new building is not without its flaws. What can you expect for $53 million? Perfection? The two main elevators are not coordinated, so one must press both buttons and hope for the best. Why coordinate them after all? In ancient times the one elevator was used just for criminals and sheriffs, and so what if there are no criminals in the building anymore? The fourth floor courtroom is timed to have the lights go out if there is no movement every five minutes or so. Energy saving and all that. It is just rather uncomfortable for a judge to have the lights go out during a trial if some slothful lawyer or litigant has not moved sufficiently vigorously for the sensors to keep the lights on. And what is meant by the term “Men’s” which is the only lettering on the room containing the blokes’ loo. Now, I’m not one to slavishly stick to the dictates of Messieurs Strunk and White, but I do believe a possessive pronoun needs a noun following it somewhere. Men’s what? You don’t want my answer to that question, so please, just complete the thought, will you guys?
So, it is time to revel in our good fortune. If you have a slow day at the office, just stop by for a cup of coffee, some snappy repartee and don’t forget to see what is going on in the various courtrooms before you double punch those elevator buttons on the way to the Men’s. See you there.