THE LIFE AND LEGACY OF CHIEF JUDGE LAWRENCE H. COOKE: 'TRULY AN EXEMPLARY LIFE. A LIFE WELL LIVED'.

Author:Carlisle, Jay C., II
Position:ARTICLES
 
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INTRODUCTION

It is an appropriate tribute to the late Chief Judge of New York, Lawrence H. Cooke, that this article be devoted to a man who many leaders of the bench, bar, and academia consider to be the greatest jurist to ever serve on New York State's highest court. Chief Judge Cooke, better known as Larry, served with honor and distinction as an associate judge of the Court of Appeals, and later as Chief Judge. (2)

Lawrence H. Cooke was a man "motivated by love--for his family, for the law, for people and life in general." (3) He led a full and meaningful life that exemplified fundamental virtues of peace, integrity, and fairness. (4) While growing up in Monticello, New York, a town on the foothills of the Catskill Mountains, his parents taught him that dedication and hard work was required in order to be successful. (5) His father, a former District Attorney for Sullivan County, showed him that public servants must always "take the high road" (6) in their affairs and never be obligated to anyone. (7)

Chief Judge Cooke once wrote that he considered his father "the personification of virtue. He was a man of common sense and logic--with his feet always solidly on the ground." (8) Chief Judge Cooke's father's teachings influenced his work ethic, which resulted in him working up to eighteen hours per day to fulfill his judicial duties. (9) Chief Judge Cooke recognized that his time on the court was a "sacred mission" in order to provide litigants a full and fair process. (10)

In 1981, during a keynote address, Chief Judge Cooke stated: "Justice is the great commodity." (11) He explained that leaders should always be guided by principles of justice and equality. In this regard, Chief Judge Cooke explained that great historical leaders appreciated this concept, noting as an example that Abraham Lincoln understood "the... important idea that the law represented... the idea of fairness;" Thomas Jefferson "exalted the concept of 'equal and exact justice to all;'" and Frederick Douglass observed that "[t]he lesson which the American people must learn... is that equal manhood means equal rights." (12) Following this approach himself, Chief Judge Cooke left a legacy defending equal justice and fundamental fairness for all people.

  1. BACKGROUND

    At the age of twenty, Chief Judge Cooke graduated cum laude from Georgetown University, (13) and later received the John Carroll Award. (14) Upon graduating from Georgetown, Chief Judge Cooke was accepted into Harvard Law School, where he began his legal education. (15) He later transferred and graduated from Albany Law School. (16) Chief Judge Cooke also received honorary LLB or LLD degrees from Albany Law School, Union University, Siena College, Brooklyn Law School, New York University, Pace University, and Syracuse University. (17)

    After graduating from Albany Law School, the Chief worked at the law office of John Lyons, a well-known Sullivan Country trial lawyer. (18) In 1947, he became the Chairman of the Sullivan County Board of Supervisors. (19) After working for John Lyons, Chief Judge Cooke went into private practice and in 1953, ran for County Court Judge. (20) A year later, Cooke was elected as Sullivan County Judge, Surrogate and Children's Court Judge. (21) In 1961, Cooke was named to the New York State Supreme Court, followed by an appointment to the Appellate Division, Third Department, in 1969. (22) He was elected to the Court of Appeals as an associate judge in 1974, (23) and in 1979, was appointed Chief Judge. (24) Chief Judge Cooke served on New York's highest court with novel admiration from his colleagues, and is remembered as one of the most influential and celebrated jurists. (25)

    During his tenure on the bench, Chief Judge Cooke wrote many instructive opinions on criminal law and procedure, (26) New York Practice, the right to free press, guardianship, and victim rights. (27) The Chief authored significant opinions relating to the development of the state's independence and the progression of New York's Constitution. (28) Chief Judge Cooke's recognition of the state's judicial sovereignty allowed the state court to independently control fundamental issues, including searches and seizures and procedural due process rights. (29) He was regarded as "a giant who helped ensure that, while the United States Supreme Court changed directions and its role, the New York Court of Appeals would continue to be an independent force and a national leader in safeguarding our rights and liberties." (30)

    According to Chief Judge Cooke, each decision he authored was designed to provide sufficient notice and guidance to future litigants. He explained that his rulings were:

    [A] yardstick that you can use for conduct in the future, so that when you pronounce a decision in a case, you can take that yardstick and measure it into a future case, so people know what they can do and what they have a right to do and what they shouldn't do. (31) Distinguished Professor Vincent M. Bonventre of Albany Law School explained that Chief Judge Cooke was a judicial giant, who "led his colleagues on the court, and held the way for state supreme courts throughout the nation to take their constitutional guarantees seriously. Indeed, the body of his opinions is a veritable call to arms to enforce fundamental law of the state in service of fundamental freedoms." (32)

    While Chief Judge, Cooke also "served as Chairman of the Conference of Chief Judges and became President of the National Center for State Courts in 1982." (33) In 1986, President Reagan appointed the Chief to chair the State Justice Institute. (34) In 1987, Chief Judge Cooke received the Distinguished Service Award from the National Center for State Courts. (35) In appreciation of his service, the Sullivan County Courthouse was renamed the Lawrence H. Cooke Sullivan County Courthouse. (36) In the latter part of his career, the Chief was also "of counsel to the Albany law firm of Couch, White, Brenner and Feigenbaum[,] and served as a member of the Board of Directors of the First National Bank of Jeffersonville." (37)

    Chief Judge Cooke also utilized his status within the legal community to advocate for reform and protection of women's rights. (38) Notably, he advocated for changes to protect the rights of rape victims, whom he had felt "[we]re outside the effective protection of the law." (39) In addition, Chief Judge Cooke put into effect a rule that prohibited reimbursement for expenses of business transacted in facilities that discriminated on the grounds of gender and race. (40) While acting as Chief Judge, he also appointed a twenty-three member panel, the Women in Law Task Force, (41) to research gender inequalities (42) in the court system. (43) In 1982, Chief Judge Cooke was the only man to have ever been admitted as an honorary member of the New York State Women's Bar Association. (44)

    During his professional career, Chief Judge Cooke was also active within his community. He served as President of the Monticello Fire Department, Sullivan County Volunteer Firefighters Association, and the Hudson Valley Volunteer Firefighters Association. (45) The Firemen's Association of the State of New York presented him with the Golden Trumpet Award. (46) Chief Judge Cooke was a member of St. Peter's Roman Catholic Church, and praised by many religious organizations for his outreach to the community--receiving the Golda Meir Memorial Award from the Jewish Lawyers Guild and the Torch of Liberty by B'nai B'rith. (47) Chief Judge Cooke was also honored as the keynote speaker for the International Jewish Jurists and Lawyers Convention in Jerusalem. (48)

  2. PROFESSOR OF LAW

    Chief Judge Cooke will be remembered for his many contributions to several law schools located in New York. Among his many contributions, the Chief served as a founding board member of two publications produced by Albany Law School (49) and taught at Pace University School of Law from 1988 to 1991. (50)

    During this time, he served as a mentor to law students and was influential throughout their studies. (51) Former Pace students recalled that it was an honor to have the former Chief Judge of the New York Court of Appeals as a professor: "Judge Cooke enhanced Pace Law School's reputation and enriched the lives of all who had the privilege to have him as their teacher." (52)

    Likewise, many students at Albany Law were instructed by Chief Judge Cooke's guest lectures. (53) He would routinely lecture classes on various subjects, seeking to take an active and positive role in the development and direction of law students. (54)

    He spoke with the students, sharing his thoughts and feelings, his vision and convictions, his hopes and expectations for them and their chosen profession. He would call upon them to "search for justice, to render justice, the ennobling feature" of a career in the law--"to help the community and rectify the wrongs that come your way and to support those that need your help." (55) Despite his distinguished resume, students were most amazed by Chief Judge Cooke's humble approach. He reminded students that he was just a "man." The Chief taught students that they should respect members of the bench, but never be afraid to speak and advocate for their clients. (56) One former student stated that Chief Judge Cooke "was a truly humble man and humanized himself, and gave us a different perspective as to who a Judge is. Every day, when I am advocating a case at trial, or upon a motion/appeal, I remember the life lesson he gave us." (57) Another former student recalls Judge Cooke telling his class: "You must argue with a fire in your belly!" when advocating for what is fair and just. (58)

    Chief Judge Cooke always tried to influence his students to take an active role in the legal community and to strive for self-betterment as a legal practitioner. (59) He instructed his students to always be ethical and passionate about their work. He also offered the advice that lawyers should avoid...

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