The U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York goes so far back in our nation’s history that it predates the U.S. Supreme Court by several weeks, says author James D. Zirin. Established by the Judiciary Act of 1789, it is known as the “Mother Court.” The Manhattan courthouse has seen some of the most turbulent and important trials in the nation’s history, including the trials of Alger Hiss and Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, and the indictment of Osama bin Laden.
Zirin spent three years as an assistant U.S. Attorney under the legendary Robert M. Morgenthau, beginning in 1967. In that time, he argued 36 criminal cases before a jury, and met some of the most influential litigators and jurists in modern American legal history. After his work as a prosecutor, he continued to litigate cases in the Mother Court. His many recollections form a backdrop to his larger history, The Mother Court: Tales of Cases That Mattered in America’s Greatest Trial Court.
The Mother Court mixes history, personal recollections and advice for litigators. In this edition of the Modern Law Library, we discuss how Zirin came to write the book, and how the events of Sept. 11, 2001 affected him personally. When his office on the 54th floor of One World Trade Center was destroyed, his firm’s switchboard operator Rosemary Smith was killed. One of his clients, Berry Berenson, also lost her life as a passenger on the plane that crashed into the Pentagon. Zirin was unharmed, as he had not yet arrived at work, but lost all his notes and many personal mementos. In our interview, he makes his case for why the Mother Court would be the proper venue for all the terrorism trials relating to the Sept. 11 attacks.
Other topics include Zirin’s experiences practicing under Robert Morgenthau; the magnetic and divisive attorney Roy Cohn, who first rose to prominence during the McCarthy hearings; and how technological changes have affected the Mother Court.