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Soft-Spoken Judge at Hub of Bitter Controversy

August 09, 1988|JOHN J. GOLDMAN | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — Judge Leonard B. Sand's decision that suburban Yonkers, N.Y., should integrate its housing has thrust the quiet-spoken federal jurist into the center of a controversy so bitter that his country house has been picketed and he has been subject to a barrage of angry phone calls and derogatory public statements.

"He looks down his blue-blood nose at us, and it's not fair," charged Yonkers City Councilman Nicholas Longo, who was held in contempt last week, and who labeled the judge, a 60-year-old Harvard Law School graduate, a "liberal lunatic."

Won't Discuss Case

Sand, who will not discuss the Yonkers case outside his courtroom, turns away such charges with an observation about the limited powers of judges.

"I think there is a school of opinion that envisions federal judges as activists who relish the opportunity to take over a school system or prison system," he said in his chambers recently at the end of a typically busy day. "The exact opposite is the case. They only act when there is a vacuum or a failure to act.

"There is not an adequate appreciation that the judge has to deal with the case before him. He is not a social engineer. He can deal with the case before him only within the confines of the case."

Noting that judges are limited by precedents, Sand said with a smile: "It is not as free-wheeling as people suspect,"

Limited powers aside, judges still possess some very strong levers. The message was very clear when Sand held four members of the Yonkers City Council in contempt of court, fined them $500 a day, threatened jail and set up a schedule of fines for the city that would bankrupt it within a month.

"There does have to come a moment of truth, a moment of reckoning when the City of Yonkers seeks not to become a national symbol of defiance of civil rights, heaping shame upon itself," Sand said.

Handling controversial, high-visibility cases is nothing new to Sand, who brought broad legal experience to the bench when he was appointed a judge in the Southern District of New York by President Jimmy Carter in 1978. Sand had been a law clerk to U.S. Judge Irving R. Kaufman when Kaufman was serving on the district court. Sand had been an assistant U.S. attorney in the district and an assistant solicitor in the solicitor general's office in Washington. He was a litigator with a long career in private practice.

Sand remembers with great fondness his apprenticeship under Kaufman--as does Kaufman, who calls Sand a "wise judge."

Sand says that Kaufman "had great ability to control a case, to move it forward, to cut through discovery motions. . . . I find myself, when I talk to my law clerks, I'm just imitating what I learned from him."

While a student at Harvard Law School, Sand had dreamed of being a judge.

"There are two great fascinations; one is the law and the other is the language," he said, chatting with a visitor near a mirrored antique English block front desk in his chambers in the Federal Courthouse in Manhattan's Foley Square. "The opportunity to decide cases and write, these were the great attractions. When we (judges) write, they have to print."

He is married to the former Ann Sulzberger, first cousin of Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, publisher of the New York Times.

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