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From ‘Red Scare’ to mob cases, new book captures great trials of America’s oldest court


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From ‘Red Scare’ to mob cases, new book captures great trials of America’s oldest court

By Irma Romero

CHICAGO, May 14, 2014 — The U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York turns 225 years old later this year, and a big celebration is planned for the oldest and most influential trial court in the nation.

In his new book from the American Bar Association, “The Mother Court: Tales of Cases That Mattered in America’s Greatest Trial Court, longtime New York attorney James D. Zirin warmly captures why the SDNY has reigned as the country’s pre-eminent trial court in the post-World War II era. 

Zirin, a former assistant U.S. attorney under legendary prosecutor Robert M. Morgenthau, escorts readers through the history, the trials, the judges, the prosecutors and the celebrated defendants of the SDNY, focusing primarily on the cases and characters since the late 1940s crackdown on communist sympathizers. “Jim Zirin is a talented trial lawyer, an able writer and a keen observer,” Morgenthau, who turns 95 this year, writes in the foreword. “It is not surprising, therefore, that he has crafted an extraordinary behind-the-scenes story, describing many of the people, cases and events of the Mother Court. … He has made a valuable contribution to the history of the court that will be of interest to all.”

Zirin affectionately provides a guidebook and testament to the Mother Court — he says no one is sure when the name originated or who first coined the phrase. The SDNY traces its origins to the Judiciary Act of 1789 and antedates by a few weeks the organization of the U.S. Supreme Court. Above all, Zirin tells the story of “The Mother Court” with a love and reverence spanning more than a half-century that began when he first observed cases as a student at Princeton. 

Now senior counsel in the New York office of Sidley Austin LLP, Zirin also shares stories of his favorite judges starting in the 1960s. “Iconic figures who projected the very spirit of justice,” he wrote of his choices. He recounts, for instance, one story involving U.S. District Court Judge Thomas Murphy, who served on the Mother Court from 1951 until his death in 1995. As he arraigned a Black Muslim defendant on a narcotics charge, Murphy and the defendant had this exchange:

            Murphy: Do you have a lawyer?
            The defendant: Your Honor, Allah is my counsel.
            Murphy: Who represents you locally?

Title:                “The Mother Court: Tales of Cases That Mattered in America’s Greatest Trial Court”
Publisher:        ABA Publishing
Product Code: 1620578
ISBN:               978-1-62722-322-5
Size:                6 x 9, hardcover
Price:               $29.95
Orders:            800-285-2221

What others are saying about “The Mother Court: Tales of Cases That Mattered in America’s Greatest Trial Court.”

“This lively account of a half-century of history of the nation’s oldest, and perhaps its most exciting, trial court, chronicling the communist trials of the hysterical McCarthy era, the exposing of America to the literature of sex, prosecutions of Mafia cartels and sensational libel cases, is peppered with the perceptive observations of a wise, experienced litigator — like flakes of chili and oregano on the choicest New York pizza.” — Pierre N. Leval, United States Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit

“A round of applause for James Zirin’s ‘Mother Court,’ a story engagingly, articulately and, above all, lovingly told. ‘We had the experience but missed the meaning’ — a T.S. Eliot quote cited in the book — could not be more apt. Through Mr. Zirin’s eyes, we do indeed come to appreciate the lasting contribution of our day-to-day Southern District encounters to the quality of our lives and fabric of our society.” — Judith Kaye, former chief judge, New York State Court of Appeals

“Every wannabe lawyer, practicing lawyer and anyone who wants a riveting and revealing read about legendary lawyers and cases should get this book. ‘Mother Court’ bristles with inspiring, amusing and embarrassing actions and antics of lawyers and clients in some of the nation’s most celebrated cases. Thanks to Jim Zirin, what happened behind the scenes in Manhattan’s Southern District no longer stays there.” Joseph A. Califano Jr.

Editor’s note: Author interviews and review copies are available by sending an email to Neal Cox at If you publish a review of this book, please send tear sheets or a copy for our files to Neal Cox c/o ABA Publishing, 321 N. Clark St., Chicago, IL 60654.

With nearly 400,000 members, the American Bar Association is one of the largest voluntary professional membership organizations in the world. As the national voice of the legal profession, the ABA works to improve the administration of justice, promotes programs that assist lawyers and judges in their work, accredits law schools, provides continuing legal education, and works to build public understanding around the world of the importance of the rule of law. To review our privacy statement, click here. Follow the latest ABA news here and on Twitter @ABANews.


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