Obituary : Morris E. Lasker
United States District Judge Morris E. Lasker died of cancer at age 92 in Mount Auburn Hospital in Cambridge, in the early morning hours of December 25.
Monnie, as he was known by friends and family, and his beloved wife Toy, first came to Martha's Vineyard in the summer of 1949. They rented the house of Nelson and Olga Bryant on the Edgartown-West Tisbury road. In 1967 they bought a home in Chilmark overlooking Menemsha Pond where they vacationed every year, and most recently during the past Thanksgiving vacation.
Judge Lasker was born in Hartsdale, N.Y., on July 17, 1917, attended The Horace Mann School in New York City, graduated in 1938 from Harvard College (Phi Beta Kappa) and from the Yale School of Law in 1941.
He served as a staff attorney for the U.S. Senate National Defense Investigating Committee (the so-called "Truman Committee," which investigated military contracts for the federal government) until he joined the Air Force in 1942 after the outbreak of World War II. He served in the United States and France, beginning as a Private and continuing until his discharge in 1946 as a Major.
In 1943 Judge Lasker was stationed for a week in Salt Lake City, Utah. On the train ride to Salt Lake he became friends with a fellow traveler who had purchased the last copy of a magazine he wanted to read. He newest friend suggested that he go on a double-date with the younger sister of his date, and the rest was history. Exactly 90 days later Monnie and Toy were married. This last April they celebrated their 66 wedding anniversary.
Judge Lasker commenced the private practice of law in 1946 in New York City with the firm then known as Battle, Fowler, Levy & Neaman, which later became Battle, Fowler, Stokes & Kheel, and he remained as a partner in the firm until 1968 when, at age 51, he became a United States District Judge for the Southern District of New York. He was nominated by Senator Robert Kennedy, shortly before Kennedy was assassinated, and was appointed by President Lyndon B. Johnson.
From 1946 to 1952, Judge Lasker lived in White Plains, N.Y., where he ran unsuccessfully for election to Congress as a Democrat in 1950. From 1952 to 1994 he lived in Chappaqua, N.Y., where he was active in public affairs - prior to his appointment to the Federal Bench - as Town Attorney and Justice of the Peace of the Town of New Castle and as a member of the Board of Education for the Chappaqua school district.
He also served as a member of the executive committee of The Bar Association of the City of New York; on the visiting committees to the philosophy department and the classics department at Harvard; as trustee of the Vera Institute for Justice in New York; and as honorary chairman of the Criminal Justice Research program at New York University Law School.
During his service in the Southern District of New York he was awarded the Learned Hand Medal of the Federal Bar Council and The Edward Weinfeld Award of the New York Counties Lawyers Association.
In 1983 he took senior status, but he continued to sit as a full-time judge for many years thereafter.
He moved to Cambridge in 1994 at which time he commenced sitting, by special designation, as a U.S. District Judge for the District of Massachusetts in Boston. In 2003, he received an award from the Federal Bar Association of Massachusetts. He continued to sit on the court with an active caseload until September 2007, at age 90. He continued to serve the court thereafter with a full-time staff and chambers, successfully mediating cases for other active judges on the court until a few months ago.
Judge Lasker's interests outside of the law included music, which was a true love, politics and current events, European and American history, literature of every sort, and gardening - especially his beautiful roses. He sang in the Alumni Harvard Glee Club until he was 85, and he played classical piano throughout his life.
Two published articles about Judge Lasker demonstrate that he was an extraordinary jurist. The first was a Man in the News feature about him in the New York Times entitled "Reformer of the Tombs." He was 66 years old at the time and had just taken senior status. It begins with these paragraphs:
During a hearing on sanitary conditions in New York City's Tombs jail in the mid-1970s, Judge Morris E. Lasker was approached by an inmate holding what he contended was a mouse, found in a bowl of soup.
The judge, who had grown accustomed to hearing such complaints was not fazed. He nonchalantly placed the evidence in a bag, put it in his pocket and took it to a mammologist at the American Museum of Natural History for analysis. It turned out to be a piece of beef.
The incident is characteristic first of the conscientiousness that has become Judge Lasker's hallmark in his 15 years on the bench of the Federal District Court in Manhattan - a reputation that recently led American Lawyer magazine to call him the best judge of the 59 trial judges in the judicial circuit comprising New York, Connecticut and Vermont. More important, it reflects the judge's continuing involvement with the issue of prison conditions in the New York area.
In the last decade perhaps no other judge in America has become so closely linked with prison conditions and prisoners' rights as Judge Lasker. In that time few, if any, governors, mayors or correction commissioners have had so marked an impact on local prison conditions.
The article states, "Over the years Judge Lasker has established a reputation among lawyers for his craftsmanship and thoughtfulness - a "philosopher king," as was said by "a Manhattan lawyer who has argued cases before him."
The second article is a feature about him in New York Magazine's year-end double issue of December 1992 entitled "The Brilliance of New York." In addition to the magazine's feature about him, there were features of equal length about such luminaries as, for example, Itzhak Perlman, Al Pacino, I.M. Pei, Toni Morrison, Pat Riley, Winton Marsalis, Floyd Abrams, P.J. O'Rourke, William Safire, and Daniel Patrick Moynihan.
The article about Judge Lasker was entitled "The Fairest of Them All." It notes that American Lawyer magazine "named him the best of the 59 federal judges in the Second Circuit." It quotes a noted New York lawyer who practiced before him, who called him "a wonderful human being," and the New York City correction commissioner, who called him the "Thoroughbred of his profession." The feature states:
Once they're in their lifetime jobs, nothing stops federal judges from letting their dictatorial instincts get the best of them. There is general gratitude, among lawyers and litigants, that Lasker, 75, has never forgotten that he was appointed rather than anointed.
During the course of his numerous years on the bench, Judge Lasker had many interesting cases come before him. First and foremost was the well known "Tombs" and "Rikker's Island" litigation in the mid-1970s, regarding the New York City jails. The judge found the conditions at the Manhattan House of Detention, commonly referred to as "The Tombs," were in violation of the Constitution, and he ordered that it be closed and the inmates be transferred to a facility on Rikker's Island. He said, "the public, through its government, has not assumed its responsibility to provide a decent environment within jail walls." Subsequently, in 1975, there was a 17-hour revolt by the inmates at Rikker's Island over the conditions there, and, at the insistance of the inmates, Judge Lasker was awakened in the middle of the night by the commissioner of corrections and asked to help quell the jail riot. State Police came to his suburban Westchester home to take him by motorcade to Rikker's Island. By his mere presence, stature and demeanor, he was acknowledged as critical in diffusing the situation and securing the release of hostages.
Among the diverse cases he handled were those involving such disparate figures as George P. Metesky, the so-called "Mad Bomber," Clifford Irving, author of the spurious Howard Hughes autobiography, the famous Hunt brothers, the convicted entrepreneur Ivan Boesky, and the notorious ensemble Monty Python. A long article about the Monty Python case in New Yorker Magazine in 1976 included this telling passage:
The case in New York of Monty Python v. American Broadcasting Companies, Inc., was, for several reasons, a diverting one. Besides the novelty of television performers suing to block themselves from being shown on nationwide television there was the satisfying sight of high officials of a huge corporation being dragged to the bar of justice by a pack of clowns. "I am not sitting here just because I am amused" the judge, Morris E. Lasker, remarked at one point, "although I am amused."
There was the suit brought by the Girl Scouts of America in 1969, which unsuccessfully attempted to block the sale of a novelty poster showing a smiling, pregnant girl in a Scout's uniform above the motto "Be Prepared." And there was the case in 1970 in which the judge ordered the city of New York jail to release Angela Davis from solitary confinement. In making his ruling, he said the city's reasons for segregating Ms. Davis were "pure possibility. . .supported by no facts or evidence." He even ruled in favor of Groucho Marx in a 1977 suit brought to enforce his rights against Oui magazine. In another case in 1977, he ordered the U.S. Attorney General to investigate an alleged leak in federal grand jury proceedings, saying, "The possibility that several law enforcement officials were responsible for a 'leak' is a matter of grave concern since such disclosures may be a betrayal of the grand jury's historic role as a shield for innocent citizens from unwarranted charges of wrongdoing." And he also struck down a city of New York ordinance requiring the licensing of stores with "peep show" booths in them, on the grounds that it was an impermissible prior restraint on free speech and violated rights protected under the First Amendment. In another case he ruled that the elections related to the New York City Board of Estimate must adhere to the constitutional mandate of one-person-one-vote.
Early on, he spoke out - and even testified before Congress - in opposition to the federal sentencing "guidelines," because they limited the discretion of judges and often led to draconian results. At the time that he did so, the national political landscape was changing in just the opposite direction.
Perhaps his highest honor occurred in 1989, when Judge Lasker received the Federal Bar Council's Learned Hand Medal for Excellence in Federal Jurisprudence. It was bestowed upon him at a black tie dinner attended by hundreds of people at the Waldorf Astoria hotel in New York. Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun was the recipient of the award the next year, in 1990. Other recipients have included Chief Justice Warren Berger, and Justices William Brennan, Lewis Powell, Thurgood Marshall, Antonin Scalia, Sandra Day O'Connor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, as well as former Attorneys General Herbert Brownell and Edward Levi. In his acceptance speech in 1989, as noted by the Federal Bar Council, "Judge Lasker challenged members of the bar, as lawyers and citizens, to be mindful of the less fortunate members of society."
He is survived by his beloved wife Toy. He is also survived by his four children, Harry M. Lasker III of Cambridge and West Tisbury; David E. Lasker of Madison, Wisc.; Kristen Lasker of Cambridge; and Timothy W. Lasker of Chilmark; as well as his nine grandchildren and five great grandchildren.
On Sunday, Dec. 27 there was a small graveside service for family members. In the spring of 2010 the will be a memorial service held at the Joseph Moakley Federal Courthouse in Boston. The family would appreciate in lieu of flowers contributions be made to an organization that helps people less fortunate than yourself.