Leonard Wexler, a senior judge in Central Islip’s Eastern District federal court who presided over some of Long Island’s biggest cases during his 34 years on the bench died Saturday. He was 93.
His son, William Wexler, a North Babylon attorney, said the cause of death was unknown.
Wexler oversaw high-profile court cases involving public officials that included ex-Suffolk County Police Chief James Burke, former Town of Oyster Bay Commissioner of Planning and Development Frederick Ippolito and, more recently, ex-Suffolk County District Attorney Thomas Spota and the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy’s 2016-17 soccer team.
Although Wexler also gained renown for presiding over proceedings involving notable cases like Lamb’s Chapel v. Center Moriches Union Free District, and the Baby Jane Doe case, his family said it was his work with Touro Law Center students and giving sentencing delays to defendants so they could turn their lives around that defined him.
“He would take certain young people who he felt had a chance, and he would give them that chance,” his wife, Barbara, said. “They would come in five years later and say how he saved their lives.”
Born on Nov. 11, 1924, in Brooklyn to immigrant Russian parents, Wexler was drafted into the Army and served in an anti-tank unit as a machine-gunner in World War II. He was struck in the left leg by shrapnel as a private during a skirmish in Germany before the Battle of the Bulge, complicating a previous case of trench foot. Wexler was awarded the Purple Heart in 2004.
He graduated from Indiana University in 1948 and the New York University School of Law in 1950, the Army paying the bill.
“He didn’t want to be a doctor so he said whatever was the longest amount of schooling,” said his son William Wexler, 58.
The elder Wexler moved to Bay Shore for a job at Siben & Siben, a negligence- and criminal-case firm where he stayed for about seven years before opening his own practice with two other lawyers.
“As he used to tell me, he handled their criminal cases and all of their losing negligence cases,” William Wexler said. “If it was a loser, he tried it.”
President Ronald Reagan nominated Leonard Wexler to the federal bench in 1983. His son, then a law student inspired by his father’s legal career, attended Senate confirmation hearings for the federal judgeship.
“Any time I had a question, I had an answer” from him, William Wexler said, noting that he and his father often saw each other in the Central Islip federal courthouse and at home in Islip where they lived six houses away from each other.
Although he never wanted to be a judge, Leonard Wexler learned to love life on the bench — particularly First Amendment cases.
“He always wanted to keep the separation of church and state,” William Wexler said. “Those cases really tested the Constitution.”
In addition to his wife of 65 years and William Wexler, he is survived by a daughter, Allison Smietanka, 62, of Sherman Oaks, California, and another son, Robert Wexler, 60, of Alexandria, Virginia.
A private service is to be held Monday.