Kevin Thomas Duffy was a federal judge who ran a tight ship
Half the New York movies of the 1970s and 1980s had one, or so it seemed: a tough, no-nonsense federal judge, usually with an Irish American vibe, impatient, seen it all, unfazed by Sharpie lawyers. Let’s move along, counselor, we haven’t got all day.
The movie archetype had real roots. Kevin Thomas Duffy, for example. One of the last of the breed, a respected jurist of high forehead and etched cheekbones who ran a tight ship in a New York courtroom as militants, mobsters and al-Qaeda terrorists passed before his bench to meet cinema-worthy justice. Duffy’s death on April 1 of complications of covid-19 marked the end of an eventful legal career — and perhaps the end of an era. He was 87.
Born in the Bronx to working-class parents at the depth of the Great Depression, Duffy owed his education to the Jesuits at Fordham University. Fordham School of Law graduates may lack some the glamour of their Ivy League peers at nearby Columbia, but over the past century, they have contributed more than their share of the worldly attorneys who actually make New York City hum.
Like a lot of Fordham lawyers, Duffy earned his bones as a federal prosecutor in the Southern District of New York, eventually making his way into Wall Street enforcement. Duffy was regional administrator of the Securities and Exchange Commission when the Nixon Administration — perhaps with a nudge from his fellow Fordham alumnus John Mitchell, Nixon’s first attorney general — nominated him in 1972 to the Southern District bench.
Judge Duffy spent the ’70s hip-deep in a dismal political swamp, assigned to referee a clean-air dispute involving the governor on one hand and the mayor on the other. Things got more interesting in the apocalyptic 1980s. Duffy presided over the federal aspects of a sensational case in which members of the Black Liberation Army and the Weather Underground engaged in violent robberies of armed cars, killing and wounding guards and police. Months of politically laced courtroom bombast produced a mixed jury verdict, leaving Duffy to shake his head sadly. “I have never understood juries,” he said.
Duffy also had a piece of the spectacular 1985 crackdown on the “Five Families” of the New York Mafia. A major springboard for then-U.S. Attorney Rudolph W. Giuliani on his path to the mayor’s office, this historic prosecution was arguably the biggest swing ever taken at the Gotham Mafia. Duffy’s role was to preside over the trial of Gambino family boss Paul Castellano, but the case hit a pothole on Dec. 16, when gunmen directed by mobster John Gotti murdered Castellano outside a Manhattan steakhouse.
Duffy was his own man. He complimented well-dressed jurors and wasn’t afraid to call an annoying prosecutor an “obnoxious little twerp.” The judge strongly objected when federal sentencing guidelines clipped the wings of his courtroom discretion.
But he could be counted on to handle a hot potato, like the furious, but now mostly forgotten, dispute over whether to allow gay Irish Americans to march in the annual St. Patrick’s Day Parade on Fifth Avenue. Duffy’s ruling that parade organizers were acting as a private organization, and therefore could exclude groups, was echoed by the U.S. Supreme Court — but later overturned by the march of time.
Perhaps his most prominent service came in a series of pre-9/11 al-Qaeda terrorism trials. These cases, precursors to the 2001 attack on Lower Manhattan and the Pentagon, included the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center, and a foiled 1995 plot to kill the pope and attack a dozen jets over the Pacific Ocean. As presiding judge, Duffy became a marked man in al-Qaeda circles and required a security detail for roughly a decade.
When the time came to sentence chief plotter Ramzi Ahmed Yousef, Duffy scoffed at the terrorist’s claims that his crimes were sanctioned by Islamic law. With a dramatic flourish, Duffy read passages from the Koran before sending Yousef away for life. “Death was truly your God, your master, your one and only religion,” he intoned.
It was just like in the movies.
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