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Judge Frederic Block pens book about life, work

The Honorable Frederic Block is a federal judge

The Honorable Frederic Block is a federal judge on the United States District Court for the Eastern District of New York. Credit: Douglas C. Palmer

Frederic Block is 78, and has been a federal judge for more than a decade.

His seniority in the Eastern District allows him to pick and choose his cases, take four or more months off each year and hear lawsuits in other districts.

But it took a trip to Greece to motivate him to write about his judicial career.

"Some great philosopher will say it is a denial of death, and to some extent there is that to it," Block said in a recent interview about why he wrote "Disrobed: An Inside Look at the Life and Work of a Federal Trial Judge." "But my best guess, I feel that there is unfinished business in terms of looking back at this stage of my life, and the unfinished business is about what value you have as a judge."

The necessity of writing was underscored when Block, who is divorced, made a trip to Greece in 2009 for a language-immersion course so he could speak with his Greek-American girlfriend. While on a bus in the seaside town of Chania, Block said a woman of about 60 offered him her seat. It was then that Block decided to write his book, while he still had the chance. It took two years.

The 445-page book is partly a memoir and also a way of educating the public about the job of a federal judge. Block and his new book, which has received a favorable mention in the Metro section of The New York Times, will be featured Thursday for a reading at the Suffolk County Bar Association.

Having served 18 years in one of the country's most active federal courts after a legal career as a private attorney in Suffolk County, Block saw the book as a way of demystifying his job.

He said people ask simple questions all the time, such as "Do you handle traffic cases? Do you do matrimonials? Do you handle custody cases? How do you become a judge?"

Covering a career that began when he hung out his shingle in private practice in Patchogue, Block details his early struggles building a law practice. A Democrat, Block ran into controversy when he filed the lawsuit that led to federal courts overthrowing the old Republican-controlled Suffolk County Board of Supervisors, now replaced by the Suffolk County Legislature.

Appointed by President Bill Clinton in 1994, Block has jurisdiction over cases on Long Island and parts of New York City. He was once labeled "Judge Blockhead" in a Daily News headline when he questioned the government's pursuit of capital punishment in a drug-murder case -- an episode Block mentions in the book.

"I realized the economics of this thing were absurd," Block recalled. Federal money had to be spent on appointed death-penalty counsel in such cases. Block was signing pay vouchers totaling more than $500,000. Prosecutors also were pursuing capital cases, which he saw as unwinnable, Block said.

Walking a careful line, Block doesn't say in the book whether he agrees or disagrees with the death penalty.

"The one thing I did do -- because I learned my lesson as a lawyer -- you don't tell the jury what to conclude. You lay out the facts, you lay out the arguments and you leave it to some intelligent people, rational people to draw the necessary conclusion," Block said.

Another controversy erupted when Marjorie Alexander, the girlfriend of Gambino mob boss Peter Gotti, committed suicide in a Westbury motel room after a spate of news stories about her surfaced when Block was to sentence Gotti in 2004.

Block let the cat out of the bag that she and Gotti were dating, and private letters she sent the judge later were released by a prosecutor, and their relationship blew up in the media.

"She was a passionate woman and apparently in love with Peter Gotti," Block recalled. "In retrospect, I probably would not have mentioned her name."

Block wrote the book in a self-deprecating voice, with some droll humor tossed in.

"When you write about yourself you can look like a jackass," Block said.

Reaction from other judges has been positive, Block said.

Lawyers have also told him they love it, although Block, knowing the advantage he has of his position, takes their kind words with a grain of salt.

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