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Federal District Judge Arthur Spatt dies at 94

Federal District Judge Arthur Spatt died Friday at

Federal District Judge Arthur Spatt died Friday at the age of 94. Credit: Newsday/Ed Betz

To give some of idea what federal District Judge Arthur Spatt meant to the Long Island legal community, a prominent attorney, known for his stern visage, burst into tears and began to sob loudly Friday when told by a reporter of the 94-year-old jurist’s death.

The attorney, who asked that his name not be used least it spoil his image, struggled to regain his composure before going on to praise the career of Spatt, who died early Friday morning.      

That attorney's sentiments were shared Friday, if not as outwardly emotionally, by Spatt’s fellow judges, a slew of defense attorneys and federal prosecutors.

Spatt died after a six-year struggle with blood cancer at his Commack home, his daughter Sarah Rabinowitz, an assistant Nassau County district attorney, said.

Spatt’s struggle with the blood cancer did not prevent him from carrying a full workload at the federal court in Central Islip — which as a senior judge starting in 2004 he did not have to do — until recently when the courts began a limited schedule because of the coronavirus, using mostly the telephone and videoconferencing.

Spatt’s drive for work was legendary and until recently he even insisted on holding court sessions on the day after Thanksgiving when the Central Islip courthouse was otherwise all but empty.

When lawyers new to his chambers complained, Spatt would reply: “And what federal holiday is celebrated on the day after Thanksgiving?” according to a number of lawyers who voiced their praise for Spatt on Friday, including defense attorney Joseph Conway of Mineola.

Conway also tells of how Spatt would explain to new law clerks, fresh out of law school, that they were expected to work from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. on weekdays, but only from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Saturdays.

In private, Spatt was a dedicated fan of the New York Jets, and became friends with Jets coach Bill Parcells, whom he first met in a deli near Hofstra University when the Jets practiced on the campus and one of the school’s buildings was used as a federal courthouse, according to Conway.

Spatt’s driving work ethic produced notable decisions, including one that abolished the old Nassau County Board of Supervisors, saying it violated the one-person, one-vote concept, allowing for the more equitable representation by members of an elected legislature, and also approved the merger of Long Island Jewish Hospital and North Shore University Hospital over the objections of the Justice Department. Among the impactful trials he presided over were the conviction of a couple who kept Indonesian women enslaved and that of former Suffolk Conservative Party leader Edward Walsh. 

Roslynn Mauskopf, the chief judge of the Eastern District said in a statement: “The Eastern District of New York has lost an extraordinary judge and wonderful colleague. Judge Spatt’s intelligence, fairness, and tireless work ethic are legendary, but equally remarkable was his warmth and kindness to his chambers family, the court staff, and all those who crossed his path every day. We will miss him dearly.”

In an email to his staff, Eastern District U.S. Attorney Richard P. Donoghue wrote: “The term ‘the Honorable’ is an honorific that we attach to judges’ names as a sign of respect for the court itself. In the case of Judge Spatt, there is no adjective more accurate. He was truly an honorable man who loved his country, the court and the people we all serve."

“Often describing himself as ‘just a lucky kid from Brooklyn’ and uninhibited by ego, he worked tirelessly in the court and in his chambers six days a week from the time he took to the federal bench more than 30 years ago,” Donoghue continued.

Randi Chavis, a senior federal public defender on Long Island said: “Judge Spatt was a great judge. He was old-fashioned in the best sense of the expression. He did not show favor to either side in his courtroom, he treated our clients with respect and he never failed to wish a person he just sentenced ‘Good Luck.’ ”

Fred Brewington, a leading civil rights attorney on Long Island, said as a young black lawyer he recalls disagreeing with a ruling by Spatt, whose courtroom demeanor set an example for him.

The next day, Brewington says “instead of trying to save face ... he said that he reviewed my position and was reversing himself and apologized for not getting [it] right the first time. … I will miss him, but his memory remains to help keep me hopeful about our legal system and our life in this society.”

Spatt grew up in Sheepshead Bay in Brooklyn and enlisted in the Navy at 17, serving in the Pacific during World War II, of which he proudly spoke.

After the war, he went to Brooklyn Law School on the G.I. Bill, and was in private practice for 30 years before a career as a state court judge. In 1989, he was nominated to a judgeship in the Eastern District by George H.W. Bush.

His wife, Dorothy, who was known as Dee, died in 2013, and he is survived by five daughters, 10 grandchildren and one recently born great-grandchild, according to Sarah Rabinowitz.

A private graveside service is planned.

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