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Judge William H. Pauley III, who presided in Michael Cohen case, dies at 68

William H. Pauley III, a federal judge in

William H. Pauley III, a federal judge in major cases including ex-Trump lawyer Michael Cohen's criminal trial, died Tuesday at age 68. Previously, Pauley was an attorney defending Nassau County and was a private-practice lawyer, as seen in 1998. Credit: Newsday/Ken Sawchuk

U.S. District Judge William H. Pauley III, a jurist with Long Island roots who served more than two decades on the Manhattan-based federal bench and presided over the criminal case against ex-President Donald Trump’s former personal lawyer, died Tuesday after a long illness. He was 68.

Pauley died at his home, according to Edward Friedland, the district executive of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York. His hometown was not available.

Southern District Chief Judge Laura Taylor Swain said Pauley "was a great judge — wise, engaged, excited about his role in making sure that justice was served in every case — and a great friend and colleague."

In 2018, Pauley sentenced Trump's former personal lawyer Michael Cohen to 3 years in prison after Cohen pleaded guilty to charges including campaign finance fraud and lying to Congress. Cohen was freed to home confinement last year during a wider prisoner release program amid the coronavirus outbreak.

"Somewhere along the way Mr. Cohen appears to have lost his moral compass," the judge said at the sentencing.

A colleague of Pauley's on the Southern District bench, Judge Colleen McMahon, said Pauley was nominated by then-President Bill Clinton and confirmed to the bench in 1998 along with three other judges, including herself. She said they dubbed themselves the "Class of ’98."

"He was a critically important member of the court’s COVID response team from its earliest days," McMahon said. "He was a wise counselor to anyone who asked him for advice. And that advice was invariably sound. … I will miss him every day."

New York Attorney General Letitia James, in a statement Wednesday, said she noticed Pauley's commitment to truth and equity when he allowed all residents to testify during the case of Baez v. New York City Housing Authority. The 2013 class-action lawsuit alleged that the city failed to address mold and excess moisture blamed for illnesses to public housing tenants.

"That important decision ensured New York City’s marginalized voices were heard," James said. "His balanced, measured, and wise voice will be missed by the legal community and beyond, and I offer my condolences to his family and loved ones during this difficult time."

According to the legal job search website, lawcrossing.com, Pauley was born in Glen Cove and received both his bachelor's and law degrees from Duke University.

Pauley previously worked for the Nassau County Attorney’s Office and in private practice. According to a Newsday Opinion section profile in 2018, he defended the county in federal and state discrimination lawsuits, including one about the Nassau police department’s discriminatory hiring practices that led to a major consent decree. In another, Pauley successfully defended Nassau in a landmark pay-equity lawsuit filed by its municipal unions.

From the bench, Pauley ruled against discrimination. In a scathing 2010 decision in a lawsuit brought by the federal government, he said New York City's Department of Transportation had never hired a single female applicant for the job of bridge painter and denounced it as "unvarnished sex discrimination."

Pauley ordered the city to offer employment and back pay to four women who sought jobs a decade ago and were turned down despite their experience, according to a Newsday story at the time. He also ordered new nondiscriminatory hiring standards.

Pauley was later thrust into the heart of Trump's tabloid-ready legal troubles involving porn star Stormy Daniels and former Playboy model Karen McDougal.

In a 2019 ruling, Pauley disclosed the end of Manhattan federal prosecutors' investigation into hush-money payments by Cohen on behalf of Trump. The 2019 ruling came after a request by Newsday and other media organizations to unseal warrants and affidavits from a search of Cohen’s office, home and hotel room.

"The campaign finance violations discussed in the materials are a matter of national importance," Pauley said, according to a Newsday story. "Now that the government’s investigation into those violations has concluded, it is time that every American has an opportunity to scrutinize the materials."

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