Edward J. Greenfield: “A Judge With a Writerly Touch”

From a New York Times obit by Katharine Q. Seelye headlined “Edward J. Greenfield, Judge With a Writerly Touch, Dies at 98”:

It was a minor legal case in the early 1970s. The New York City Civil Service Commission ruled that a police officer who had missed his Civil Service promotion exam because he was attending his mother-in-law’s funeral could not make up the test because “the deceased was not related.”

That irked Justice Edward J. Greenfield of the New York State Supreme Court, who was hearing the officer’s appeal. To the judge, the ruling only further denigrated mothers-in-law, who, he wrote, “have a standing on the social scale somewhat beneath grave robbers, horse thieves and boiler room operators.”

It was time, he said, to stand up for this most maligned of relatives. As often happened when he put pen to paper, Justice Greenfield’s 1974 legal opinion expanded into a full-blown disquisition.

“The time has come to speak out forcefully and to give judicial recognition to the fact that mothers-in-law are not as bad as they are painted,” he wrote. “For every mother-in-law who is domineering, there are dozens who are sustaining. For every one who is prying, there are a score who are understanding.”

Back to the matter at hand, he concluded that the Civil Service ruling had been arbitrary and capricious, and that the police officer should be allowed to make up the exam.

Such flights of rhetoric were a hallmark of the thousands of opinions Justice Greenfield crafted during his three decades on the trial bench….

Over the years, Justice Greenfield was involved in many notable cases. He presided over the 1975 trial in which three Black Panthers were convicted of murdering two New York City police officers. He ruled that psychiatric patients could not be subjected to drug experiments. He allowed a photographer to continue selling nude photos of the actress Brooke Shields, although he also scolded her mother for exploiting her.

At the same time, he gained notice for the artistry of his opinions, in which he often luxuriated in the English language, prancing off on whimsical digressions and enlivening the law with colorful asides. Given to musing on the human condition, he was as apt to cite T.S. Eliot, Mark Twain or Shakespeare as he was to cite legal precedent….

In a 1984 ruling in favor of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, who had sued the Christian Dior fashion house for using a Jackie-look-alike model in an advertising campaign, Justice Greenfield said her privacy had been trampled. Then he dipped into “Othello”: “Who steals my purse steals trash,” he quoted, “but he who filches from me my good name robs me of that which not enriches him, and makes me poor indeed.”

Upholding New York City’s so-called pooper-scooper law in 1979, Justice Greenfield reflected on the three categories of people in the world: those who love dogs, those who despise dogs and “that tiny fragment of the population which apparently does not care one way or another about dogs and devotes its attention to problems of lesser impact like nuclear destruction, economic disaster, overpopulation and the pernicious influence of pornography.”

He took such care in writing his opinions, and took on so many complex cases, that he was sometimes slow in issuing decisions. Prompted by unhappy litigants, the state Commission on Judicial Conduct filed a complaint against him in 1988 for taking too long to decide certain cases, one of which was delayed by nine years. In a rare rebuke, the commission reprimanded him, but the Court of Appeals overturned that reprimand in 1990.

“He often worked evenings, weekends and holidays and volunteered for difficult cases,” the court said. “There is no suggestion that he was not devoting his full time and energies to his judicial activities.” The court concluded that Justice Greenfield had been “overly optimistic with respect to his management abilities.” The problem was alleviated by administrative changes and a reduction in his caseload.

“One of the things that defined him was that he valued the written word, and he labored over his decisions,” Mark Greenfield said. Any slowness, he added, “was not unrelated to the fact that he took his time and wanted to get it just right.”

Edward Jay Greenfield was born on Dec. 8, 1922, in Manhattan and grew up in the Bronx….A graduate of DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx, Edward attended New York University, where he majored in political science. After graduating in 1943, he enlisted in the Navy and was sent to the Navy’s Japanese Language School in Boulder, Colo. He went on to serve as a naval intelligence officer in the Pacific.

After the United States dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima on Aug. 6, 1945, Lieutenant Greenfield was one of the first people to enter the city.

“No one had prepared him for the horrors of the bomb, and he was just shocked by the utter devastation,” Mark Greenfield said. “There were still many people who had not been killed instantly, and they were looking for help. It was like nothing he had ever seen.”

When the Japanese surrendered to the Allied forces, ending the war, he served as a translator at the surrender ceremony, held on Sept. 2, 1945, aboard the U.S.S. Missouri.

He stayed in Japan for nearly a year as part of the U.S. occupation. He then studied at Harvard Law School, from which he graduated in 1948 under an accelerated program designed to accommodate the crush of veterans returning from the war. He went into private practice in Manhattan, eventually joining Proskauer, Rose & Paskus, now Proskauer Rose, one of the few firms at the time that would hire Jewish lawyers.

He was elected a civil court judge in 1963, then elected to the State Supreme Court in Manhattan in 1968 and re-elected in 1982.

Justice Greenfield reached the mandatory retirement age of 70 in 1992, before his second 14-year term expired. At that point he was certified to continue for six more years, after which he returned to private practice until he was 91.

Earlier in his career he was chairman of the Lexington Democratic Club, on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. One day one of the club’s volunteers, Nancy Kasten, had an attack of appendicitis and was taken to the hospital. He visited her there once, then twice, and soon they were courting. They married in 1960. She survives him. In addition to his son Mark, he is also survived by another son, Robert.

Katharine Q. “Kit” Seelye is a Times obituary writer. She was previously the paper’s New England bureau chief, based in Boston. She worked in The Times’s Washington bureau for 12 years, has covered six presidential campaigns and pioneered The Times’s online coverage of politics.

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