Former state judge Leon Lazer helped draw the blueprint for Suffolk County’s current legislative system and oversaw the court system’s “Bible” of jury instructions in a law career that spanned 70 years.
The Dix Hills resident, 96, died Wednesday of prostate cancer at home. Some friends and colleagues at Touro Law Center in Central Islip had considered him “indestructible” despite his age because his willpower always helped him bounce back from illnesses.
“He was a great lawyer and a prince of a man,” said Harry Ballan, the school’s dean. “He was . . . a benevolent custodian of the law. He received the law as a treasure and he passed it on as a treasure.”
A New York University School of Law graduate who was born in Brooklyn, Lazer was admitted to the bar in 1948 and his first note of distinction was strategizing in 1959 to get attorney Robert Flynn elected as Huntington town supervisor, the first Democrat to hold that post in Suffolk’s five western towns. Lazer was appointed town attorney, helping create Huntington’s first ethics code.
At that time, Suffolk County was ruled by a board of supervisors, composed of each town’s supervisor. After the county was sued over unfair representation of voters — western Suffolk was more populated than the East End — Lazer was tapped to co-chair the Suffolk reapportionment committee. The so-called Lazer Plan led to what is now a county legislature with 18 lawmakers.
In 1972, Lazer ran for the state Supreme Court and won, then was appointed in 1978 to the Appellate Division.
Attorneys familiar with his work considered many of his decisions masterpieces.
For example, in an oft-cited medical malpractice case, Nicastro vs. Park, Lazer did not just affirm the trial judge’s decision to overturn the verdict, he also laid out a rationale in several pages, precise and full of history, going back to how English judges centuries ago punished juries who didn’t listen to court instructions.
“I laughed when I saw that because he’s instructing us,” said Eileen Kaufman, friend and fellow law professor.
But when Lazer, a Democrat, ran to retain his appeals judgeship in 1986, Nassau County Republican head Joseph Mondello broke with tradition by refusing to cross-endorse candidates.
The inevitable defeat of Lazer and other respected judges set off a storm of debate on revamping the judicial election process.
David Lazer of Huntington said his father was “devastated” afterward because he wanted to be on the Court of Appeals, the state’s highest court, delivering a deep-seated sense of justice.
“Politics got him in, and politics got him out,” the son aid.
Lazer yearned to ensure things were right, a feeling molded in part when he was a Jewish signal corpsman in the U.S. Army. In World War II, he arrived in Normandy, France, a few days after D-Day, fought in the Battle of the Bulge and stayed on with the Army in Germany until 1946.
“He would never buy a German car or drink a German beer,” his son said.
Rethinking his position in the legal world, the former judge accepted a law professor post at Touro, where he was beloved by students, despite his reputation for reprimanding homework slackers.
On and off the bench, Lazer took key roles that reflected his deep dive into cases, trends and history. For 35 years, he headed the Pattern Jury Instructions Committee, a state court judicial group tasked with laying out jury instructions for every charge, a multivolume series that every civil judge in the state uses.
He was the prime mover behind Touro’s annual Leon Lazer Supreme Court Symposium, an event held to discuss constitutional issues and new case law that attracts hundreds from across the state. He played a principal role in creating the office of the appellate defender in New York City to represent homeless people charged with felonies.
Longtime friend Jack Braslow of Middle Island remembers how the law was like fuel to Lazer. One Monday, when he got a ride from Lazer’s home to a Brooklyn courthouse, he had to share the car with at least six large leather cases of paperwork that the judge read over the weekend on a major Long Island school tax lawsuit.
“Complete maniac,” Braslow said jokingly of his friend of 60 years. “He was a consummate lawyer. The guy would not give up.”
Lazer took care of his wife, Renee, until her death two years ago from Alzheimer’s disease. Besides his son, he is survived by his sister, Dolores Silver of New Jersey; daughter, Deborah Lazer of Winston-Salem, North Carolina; and two grandsons.
Services were held Friday at I.J. Morris Funeral Home in Dix Hills. The family was sitting shiva at Lazer’s Dix Hills home later Friday and will continue 6-9 p.m. Saturday, noon-6 p.m. Sunday and noon-8 p.m. Monday.