“Quest” Recommends The Mother Court by James D. Zirin

by James C. Goodale

For three decades starting in the 1950s, some of the most famous cases in the United States took place in New York City’s federal court. James Zirin calls this court The Mother Court, which is the title of his entertaining new book.

The author is a well-known New York City trial lawyer who, additionally, has a high sense of humor. He started going to the Mother Court when he was at Princeton University and became so fascinated with the trials that he became a lawyer.

As he recounts, one of the greatest moments of his life was when Robert Morgenthau, U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, hired him in 1967 to work for the oldest district court in the nation. Which meant he was on his way to trying cases in the Mother Court.

Zirin explains in his book why he thought the Mother Court was the greatest court of its time: it had the best judges, the best lawyers, and, Zirin asserts, the most famous cases.

The Mother Court is, in fact, the trial court for federal cases and it covers New York City but does not cover Brooklyn and the rest of Long Island. It is a court for federal crimes and federal questions but not New York State claims, which are tried in New York State courts.

A portrait photo of Whittaker Chambers

One of the most famous, or infamous, cases ever tried in the Mother Court was the 1950s perjury case of Alger Hiss. He was indicted for lying under oath that he did not turn over secret State Department documents to Whittaker Chambers. At the time, Chambers was a Time magazine editor. Chambers claimed that he knew Hiss when they were in a communist cell in the 1930s. Hiss said Chambers was lying.

Hiss was, in fact, tried twice in the Mother Court since the first trial ended with a hung jury. The second case resulted in his conviction. The hero of the case in Zirin’s eyes was Thomas Murphy, a prosecutor with a walrus moustache who was unimpressed with the Ivy League credentials of Hiss, a graduate of Harvard Law School and former law clerk to Oliver Wendell Holmes.

Hiss was an establishment figure, Chambers was not. Hiss, in fact, had several connections with well-respected Wall Street law firms, firms that survive today: Cahill Gordon & Reindel, where Hiss once worked, and Debevoise & Plimpton, which represented him in his first case.

But the Hiss case is not the only important case Zirin spotlights. He also describes the Rosenberg, Westbrook Pegler, Roy Cohn, and the Pentagon Papers cases, among others.

The book contains none of the dry dust usually associated with books by lawyers. Zirin writes with a journalistic style so that the book is for everyone, not just those familiar with the law. He has great gusto to go with his humor.

Zirin pulls no punches when it comes to saying which judges he likes and those he does not. Those making the cut are Judges Edward Weinfeld, Walter Mansfield, Harold “Ace” Tyler, Edward Palmieri, Murray Gurfein and Thomas Murphy, who became a judge following his victory in the Hiss case. Those below the line: Irving Ben Cooper, Lloyd MacMahon, David Edelstein and Constance Baker Motley, who was the first African American woman appointed to the Mother Court.

The book does not lack sex, and Zirin indeed has a chapter called “U.S. v. Sex.” He covers Deep Throat, I Am Curious (Yellow), and Rudy Giuliani’s attempt to bar salacious art at the Brooklyn Museum. Zirin’s description of the sex in I Am Curious (Yellow), and Deep Throat, may seem small potatoes today in the age of the Internet, but, nonetheless, Zirin brings these cases to life, which makes fascinating reading.

Zirin yearns for the good old days of the Mother Court. Digitalization has taken over the trials and Zirin asserts this has taken much of the drama out of them. He may be right, but on the other hand, it may be difficult to equal all the drama of those years as described by Zirin in his book The Mother Court.

Book cover image courtesy of ABA Publishing