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Giuliani Refuses to "Judge Segal Fairly"

By Woody Henderson

On March 22nd a large group of supporters gathered in front of the Kings County Family Court to show support for the Honorable Judge Philip C. Segal, who has become the most recent casualty of the Giuliani administration.

Since his 1991 appointment by then Mayor David Dinkins Judge Segal has served ten distinguished years on the bench of the New York Family Court. He has been one of the few judges who have shown the moral fiber and fortitude to stand up to unfair policies and unconstitutional actions by the Administration for Children's Services (ACS). However, Mayor Giuliani refuses to re-appoint him for a second term.

In preparing this article I spoke with a number of legislators, advocates, lawyers, and parents who have had to face Judge Segal in his court or were familiar with his decisions. "He is fair" is the one phrase they all used to describe him and that phrase is probably the highest form of praise a judge can receive.

Ernestine Benizeau, an attorney who has practiced in the NY family court since 1979, also acts as legal counsel to the National Action Network's ACS committee. She said, "I've known Judge Segal for over twenty years, since he was with the Bronx Legal Services and supervising attorney for the Municipal Employees Legal Services of DC-37, the largest municipal employees union in the country. I've also appeared before him in his court. He has an excellent knowledge of the law and is always fair in his determinations." When I told her what Mayor Giuliani included in his justification for not re-appointing Judge Segal to the family court was that he rules too often against ACS. She responded saying, "ACS wins over 90% of the cases brought before the Family Court. Why doesn't Mr. Giuliani ever complain about the judges who seem to always rule in favor of ACS?"

Ms Benizeau sat on the panel of one of the major forums held by the National Action Network on ACS and the Family Courts. This panel included such distinguished members as: Congressman Major Owens of Brooklyn, Ronnie Eldridge of the City Council, Councilman Stephen DiBrienza, Chairman of General Welfare, NY State Assemblyman Roger L. Green., Hank Orenstein from the Public Advocates Office and the highly respected civil rights attorney, Karen Burstein, who all agree with principles that Judge Segal adhered to.

Philis Emetu, an ACS caseworker for eight years, said, "I have been before him [Judge Segal]. He is better than most judges. He at least allows both the caseworker and the parents to speak, and any other family member who has something to say regarding the case, and it is obvious that he listens. This allows him to have additional information to help make fairer decisions. Most judges only allow the lawyers to speak for the caseworker or parent. He will ask both the parent and caseworkers direct questions about what is taking place. Many caseworkers don't like to appear before him because he will chew you up if you are not prepared."

At 12:35PM in spite of a heavy and steady downpour of rain the judge after clearing his morning calendar of cases, emerged from the entrance of the court house to a spontaneous chant of, "We want Segal, We want Segal."

Dressed in a tan London Fog trench coat and thin horn-rimmed glasses, accompanied by his lovely wife and several family court attorneys, such as Robert Greenfield, Pres. of the Brooklyn Family Court Bar Assoc., 18-B attorneys Eli Yeger and Gary Schultz. Judge Segal addressed his supporters saying, "When I first heard about the rally today and that you were going to be here as a show of support for me, I had several reactions. For one thing, I thought what a fitting send-off for someone who came of age in the '60s. And I also thought that I was very lucky to have people like you, who support me and what I tried to do here in the Family Court. So, thank you for being here today.

"When David Dinkins appointed me to the bench, I realized that I was being given an enormous privilege and opportunity to serve. The family Court is not an easy place. So many of the issues here involve the most difficult and complex problems in our society. There are the families that have been separated, the children who have suffered abuse and domestic violence. We see it all! We see people who do not have the opportunities or power that others have. And when they came before me, I tried to treat each case and each family individually and with respect.

"During my ten years on the bench I sought to uphold the law. I recognize that reasonable people can differ about how a particular case is decided, and I respect that. But I believe that it is important to have an independent judiciary where judges rule on the facts before them and not on where institutional powers rest.

"I am deeply touched and honored that you're here I thank you again, and look forward to finding new ways to be colleagues, as I move on to the next adventure."

NY State Assemblyman Roger L. Green, Chair of Legislative Standing Committee on Children and Families, was in Albany and unable to attend the rally. He did send a written statement, which said. "It is with great disappointment to hear that a family court judge with such objectivity and dedication to his work will not have the opportunity to continue. Judge Segal has had a very distinguished background in legal service and was one that took a stand in the new 'ASFA' [Adoption and Safe Families Act] bill, which included fingerprinting requirements. With Judge Segal's profound judgement it allowed legislators to amend the law. For Mayor Guiliani not to reappoint Judge Segal to family court is outrageous."

Former Mayor David Dinkins said he regrets that Mr. Giuilioni did not see fit to re-appoint such a fine man and judge as Judge Phillip Segal. When Mr. Dinkins was asked if he thought that this was a continuation by Mayor Guiliani to dismantle much of the good work he had done, being the eternal gentleman, Dinkins said, "The Mayor has a committee that recommended Judge Segal not be re-appointed. That committee is made up of mostly representatives {such as professors and deans} from law schools, unless he has recently reassembled that committee."

My investigation shows that is exactly what the Mayor has done.

Since judges are appointed by the Mayor and not elected by the people it is feared that the Mayor's refusal to reappoint Judge Segal to the family court will serve to send a signal to other judges. If they rule against the way ACS presents its cases or ACS's failure to offer services to families at risk before removing the children they themselves may be at risk.

Judges demanding that ACS follow as strictly as possible the rules the law requires would go a long way in reducing the heavy case loads on the courts, the law guardians, the underpaid 18-B attorneys, and ACS itself. Attorney Robert Greenfield said, "One of the major functions of the family court is to try and reunite families as quickly as possible, even if there is neglect or abused cases and allegations. The goal is to try to reunite that family and I think he adhered to that guideline and tried to follow it as quickly and fairly as he could."

I spoke with Jennifer Falk, press secretary for ACS who said, ACS has no comment on the decision not to reappoint Judge Segal, and referred me to the Mayors press office. At the time of this printing I am still waiting for a return call from a spokesperson for the Mayor.

 

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