- Federal judge, first appointed by President Bill Clinton
- Ruled in 2006 that a former Weather Underground revolutionary, incarcerated for her role in the deadly 1981 Brinks robbery, was entitled to a new trial
- Ruled in 2013 that NYC’s “stop-and-frisk” anti-crime tactic was unconstitutional
Born in 1946 in Washington, DC, Shira Scheindlin earned a BA from the University of Michigan in 1967, an MA from Columbia University in 1969, and a JD from Cornell Law School in 1975.1 On July 28, 1994, Scheindlin was nominated to the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York by President Bill Clinton and was confirmed by the Senate two months later. She continues to serve in that post today.
Among the most noteworthy cases over which Judge Scheindlin has presided was a 1999 civil-rights lawsuit filed by the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR), charging that the New York Police Department’s (NYPD) street-crime unit routinely engaged in “racial profiling” which discriminated against nonwhites. In January 2001 Scheindlin granted class-action status to the suit, wherein CCR attorneys sought monetary damages on behalf of all minorities who had been stopped by the street-crime unit at any time during the preceding three years.
In the 2002 case United States v. Osama Awadallah, Scheindlin famously dismissed a perjury charge against the Venezuelan-born, Jordanian-raised defendant, who had been apprehended (without specific criminal charges) as a material witness after his telephone number was found in a car that one of the 9/11 terrorists had driven to the airport on the morning of the hijackings. Though Awadallah admitted in grand jury testimony that he had cultivated a passing acquaintanceship with two of the hijackers, Scheindlin ruled that his detention could not be justified under existing law. The judge’s decision was later reversed on appeal.
In September 2006 Scheindlin ruled that Judith Clark, a former Weather Underground revolutionary who was serving a 75-years-to-life prison sentence for her role in the 1981 murder of a Brinks guard and two police officers, was entitled to a new trial—though there was no question of Clark’s involvement in that crime. Specifically, Scheindlin held that in the first trial Clark’s Sixth Amendment right to counsel had been violated—even though the defendant insisted on representing herself, turned down legal counsel, boycotted much of the trial, and refused to recognize the court’s authority. In January 2008, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals unanimously reversed Scheindlin’s ruling and held that Clark had “knowingly and intelligently exercised her constitutional right to make those choices.”
In 2013 Scheindlin presided over the Floyd v. City of New York civil-rights lawsuit which the Center for Constitutional Rights filed as a challenge to the enormously effective but controversial “stop-and-frisk” practices of the NYPD. In a historic decision (rendered on August 12), Scheindlin ruled that stop-and-frisk was unconstitutional. “In their zeal to defend a policy that they believe to be effective,” she said, “[city officials] have willfully ignored overwhelming proof that the policy of [police] targeting ‘the right people’ is racially discriminatory and therefore violates the United States Constitution.” The judge then elaborated on what New York City policing would need to look like in the future:
“In order to conduct a stop, an officer must have individualized, reasonable suspicion that the person stopped has committed, is committing, or is about to commit a crime. The officer must be able to articulate facts establishing a minimal level of objective justification for making the stop, which means more than an inchoate and unparticularized suspicion or hunch.”
To “remedy” New York’s allegedly unconstitutional practices, Scheindlin appointed former city attorney and prosecutor Peter Zimroth, a partner in the Arnold and Porter law firm, to serve as a monitor who, at city taxpayer expense, would conduct “regular compliance reviews” and issue public reports every six months for an indeterminate period of time. Notably, Zimroth authored a 1974 book about the federal prosecution of the Black Panthers, titled Perversion of Justice.
On October 31, 2013, the U.S. Second Circuit Court of Appeals—claiming that Scheindlin had “[run] afoul” of judicial ethics—put on hold the stop-and-frisk reforms that she had mandated, and unanimously removed her from all cases involving the practice. According to the court, Scheindlin—by granting a series of media interviews while overseeing the Floyd trial earlier that year—had failed to “avoid impropriety and the appearance of impropriety in all activities,” a violation of the Code of Conduct for United States Judges. The court faulted Scheindlin for failing to disqualify herself “in a proceeding in which the judge’s impartiality might reasonably be questioned.”
For additional information on Shira Scheindlin, click here.
1 After a brief stint as a private-practice attorney in New York City (1975-76), Scheindlin clerked for Judge Charles Brieant, Jr. of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York during 1976-77. She then worked as an assistant U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of New York (1977-81); general counsel for the New York City Department of Investigation (1981-82); federal magistrate judge for the Eastern District of New York (1982-86); adjunct professor at Brooklyn Law School (1983-94); and private legal practiioner in Short Hills, New Jersey (1986-90) and New York City (1990-94).