“People call him a populist and a firebrand, but that’s not really his personality,” said John C. Coffee, a professor at Columbia Law School who has co-taught a course on white-collar crime with Mr. Rakoff for the past 23 years. “He is a much calmer, quieter guy. He is not a grandstander. He is not trying to lead a movement.”
Judge Rakoff declined to be interviewed for this story, saying that it would be inappropriate, in light of the attention the Citi case received, to be preening before microphones.
(“I wish he would start giving interviews again,” one friend said, “so you all would stop calling me.”)
Legal observers and friends describe Judge Rakoff as bringing a prosecutor’s ferocity and a deep knowledge of securities law to the bench. He grew up in the Mount Airy section of Philadelphia, an upper-middle-class enclave in the northern reaches of the city, attending the prestigious Central High School. He was a high school debater who ran for student body president, and lost, a high school friend recalls, to “a popular jock.” His father was a pioneering fertility doctor; his mother worked in the public school system. He went to Swarthmore and Harvard Law, and after clerking for a federal judge, did a long stint as a prosecutor in the U.S. Attorney’s office securities fraud bureau.
“It was an extraordinary time,” said Rusty Wing, a partner at Lankler Siffert & Wohl who worked alongside Mr. Rakoff then. “You are very much a band of brothers, and you perceive yourself as wearing the white hat, doing the right thing, doing justice.”
After time at two white-shoe law firms, Mr. Rakoff was appointed to the judiciary by President Clinton in 1995. But despite his increasingly mythic status among his admirers, he has not moved up the judicial ladder from his district court judgeship.
And he is unlikely to in the future, due mainly, legal experts say, to a 2002 ruling that claimed that the death penalty was unconstitutional, calling it “the state sponsored murder of innocent human beings.”
Then, he publicly revealed that although he found the death penalty to be “sufficiently fallible,” he could sympathize with victims’ families—his own brother, Jan, had been brutally murdered 17 years prior in the Philippines, and the assailant was never properly brought to justice.
“He found the death penalty unconstitutional, and the Justice Department doesn’t accept that,” said Professor Coffee. “ Any softness on the death penalty would be a problem for the confirmation process.”
Adds another friend, “He was aware at the time he made the decision that it was a political disqualifier.”
Instead, Mr. Rakoff threw himself into the district court, where judges are far closer to the lived experience—rather than the realm of legal theory that appellate-level justices face—of those before them in their courtroom.
“The district court is a form of combat. I think he likes that,” said another one of the judge’s brothers, Todd Rakoff, himself a professor at Harvard Law.
Because he has developed a reputation for outspokenness, there is a fear among some court-watchers that his words will be blunted.
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