"Mrs. Motley's style could be deceptive, often challenging a witness to get away with one lie after another without challenging them. It was as if she would lull them into an affirmation of their own arrogance, causing them to relax as she appeared to wander aimlessly off into and around left field, until she suddenly threw a curveball with so much skill and power it would knock them off their chair."
Reading Doug Martin's obituary of Judge Constance Baker Motley in today's Times, I came across this quote from Charlayne Hunter-Gault and suddenly I was back in her Federal courtoom in Foley Square in the late 80s, a young, muckraking reporter again. Once again, I sat in the row behind the defendants, close by the courtoom artists, and listened as Judge Motley lay in wait for the attorneys - particularly those at the long defense tables.
Her particular antagonist during the lengthy Wedtech corruption trial was Maurice Nessen, the dapper defense attorney for former Bronx Borough President Stanely Simon, one of a list of seven co-defendants that included the powerful Congressman Mario Biaggi and his son. Judge Motley could not abide Nessen, who consistently tried to seperate his client from the rest of the Wedtech indictees, extending discovery in the case endlessly (in her view) and challenging evidence every step of the way.
This infuriated Judge Motley. You could feel her ire rising from the black robes as everyone in the courtroom - perhaps exclusing Mr. Nessen - realized that the curt "my chambers, counsel" command was imminent. The great Daily News courtroom artist Joe Papin portrayed the Judge as a massive, imposing presence who scared the bejeezuz out of the defense table. And it was true: Judge Motley was a real presence, both because of her actions and because of her personal history as one of the leading figures of the civil rights movement, a lawyer who went fearlessly into some of the south's most prejudiced jurisdictions and came away with victory after victory.
But she could not abide Nessen for some reason, and had very little patience for the defense attorneys in general. She gave wide latitude to the prosecution, which was a combined effort of the Bronx District Attorney and the U.S. Attorney's Office (ruled then by giants named Merola and Giuliani).
I was thinking of her particularly difficult relationship -- highly entertaining to the young political reporter for The Riverdale Press -- with Nessen this morning as I read the accounts of the indictment of Republican House leader Tom DeLay by a Texas grand jury. The prosecutor, charged DeLay and his supporters, was acting from pure political malice; some went so far as to say he was indicted merely because of his Republican position. Checking the record, it seems that Travis County district attorney Ronnie Earle has a long record of prosecuting political corruption; although a Democrat himself, he has indicted 12 Democrats and only three Republicans during his 30 years in office. Judge Motley was a liberal, a leading pioneer in civil rights, and a Democrat who was selected to serve as Borough President of Manhattan. Maurice Nessen was a liberal as well, and all the officials on trial were Democrats. Yet Judge Motley bore in hard; I think it's fair to suggest she believed in the evidence.
Then again, did Democrat Mario Merola hesitate to the indict the leadership of the party that elected him District Attorney? Did Republican Rudy Giuliani hesitate to prosecute a case that led directly into the office of the Attorney General and the Reagan White House? They did not.
It seems silly, to me, to suggest that our judges and prosecutors are "political." To do so is akin to stating the sky is blue; it betrays a blindness born of purely partisan fighting, a sense that the accuser has been on the field of battle just a bit too long and needs some time in the rear echelons. Indeed, the charges against Tom DeLay seem very familiar to me, baptized into politics as I was by the Bronx Democratic Party in the 1980s. He is accused of violating a Texas law that makes illegal his funneling thousands of dollars in corporate contributions from the state through the Republican National Committee. I've seen this before: shakedowns in school board elections, brown bag political contributions from felons to political campaigns, bribes in the form of contributions to political clubs in exchange for public contracts.
On the other hand, critics who suggest that the growing corruption scandals gradually sucking the wind out of the White House and the Congress are somehow the product of Republican political doctrine are smoking some strong stuff indeed. What's bringing down the Republicans is too much time in power; they have no check and the temptation is too strong. It's not a Republican phenomenon, though it may benefit the Democratic Party in the short term.
As the Times noted, Constance Baker Motley "won cases that ended segregation in Memphis restaurants and at whites-only lunch counters in Birmingham, Ala. She fought for Dr. King's right to march in Albany, Ga. She played an important role in representing blacks seeking admission to the Universities of Florida, Georgia Alabama and Mississippi and Clemson College in South Carolina. She helped write briefs in the landmark school desegregation case Brown v. Board of Education in 1954 and in later elementary-school integration cases."
As a black woman practicing law in the South, she endured gawking and more than a few physical threats. A local paper in Jackson, Miss., derided her as "the Motley woman."
But I believe that having seen the abuse of political power close-up in the South, and fighting successfully against that entrenched system of injustice, the Constance Baker Motley of the Federal bench had neither time nor patience for bid-rigging and bribery by the likes of Bronx elected officials. She knew instinctively that political corruption knows no party lines. I can still see her scowl.