On September 4, former New York State Chief Justice Sol Wachtler was the guest speaker at LIMBA (Long Island Metro Business Action). Mr. Wachtler shared his views on the current judicial system and the political landscape that he believes has compromised the judicial system.
During the Korean War, Mr. Wachtler was stationed as a military officer in Georgia. At that time, all branches of the armed forces were integrated. His first case involved a Black soldier who was arrested for disorderly conduct, destruction of property and resisting arrest. He received a phone call from the local police department asking if they should hold him; Mr. Wachtler said that the MPs will pick him up and return him to the base. (Soldiers who are arrested by local law enforcement are then turned over to the military to stand trial.)
While living in the rural South, Mr. Wachtler said, he witnessed “bigotry beyond comprehension.” He saw how Blacks were not allowed in restaurants and made to use separate facilities from white people. When he spoke to the police officer, Mr. Wachtler said, he used a racial epithet in reference to the soldier. He also said he experienced prejudice firsthand; as a child, he would be beaten up in school because he was Jewish. The evangelical churches in the area also exhibited an animosity towards Catholics.
In talking about how government functions, Mr. Wachtler said he is glad to see a system of checks and balances in place — that is, no branch of government can have power over the other. When he was appointed chief state justice by then-Governor Mario Cuomo, he said the governor could not influence him to make certain decisions. When President Trump nominated Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh to the U.S. Supreme Court, once they joined the Court, the president could not force them on rule on a case in a certain way.
When he ran for Nassau County Executive in 1967, Mr. Wachtler’s campaign hired a pollster to determine what his message should be. This was the time of the “Long Hot Summer,” when race riots broke out throughout the country. The pollster urged Mr. Wachtler to run on a law-and-order platform (similar to what President Trump is doing during his reelection campaign), saying the nation is very divided. He told the pollster that he didn’t want to mention anything about the riots, but rather focus on coming up with solutions to fix the county’s problems.
One of the attendees asked why there are so many unqualified state judges sitting on the bench. Mr. Wachtler said that, in New York State, the judges are elected, not appointed, which he calls “a travesty.” He added that people vote for these judges without knowing who they are or what they stand for. Further, the candidates are appointed by the political parties. Mr. Wachtler said that only “the best and brightest minds” should be worthy of judgeship.