By Rob Abruzzese
Brooklyn Daily Eagle
The Theodore Roosevelt Federal Courthouse on the corner of Cadman Plaza and Tillary Street in Brooklyn looks like a fortress to the average passerby, and it is. But what happens in the building is, collectively, the work of dedicated people who handle the ceremonial, the combative and protective functions that can affect the lives of so many Brooklynites. And they do it every day.
“I think it’s in some ways the nucleus of Brooklyn,” said the court’s district executive, Eugene J. Corcoran. “The whole federal presence with the bankruptcy court across the street too. The federal community is a huge part of the rebuilding or revitalization of Downtown Brooklyn.”
The original building was built in 1963 and was named the Emanuel Celler Federal Building. Renovations started on the building in 1999, and when they was done in 2006, there was a new 15-story wing in place of the old six-story courthouse. The new, massive, 750,000-square-foot structure was eventually renamed after Roosevelt in 2008.
One profound impact the courthouse has on Brooklynites’ everyday lives is that the court has housed offices of New York City's Office of Emergency Management and FEMA. The courthouse couldn't be happier to provide them with the space and has even allowed first responders to sleep there in the first 48 hours in response to Hurricane Sandy.
“During Superstorm Sandy, a lot of the first responders just simply weren’t able to get home, so a lot of them slept in the courthouse,” Corcoran said. “I don’t think that’s ever been done before in a federal building, and it shows that we’re willing to help and share resources.”
The most common event that happens at the courthouse is the naturalization process for immigrants. Four days a week, they become American citizens in the Roosevelt Courthouse. That's 65,000 in the last year alone, and anywhere between 45,000 and 70,000 people a year on average. It has gotten so busy, in fact, that they have started naturalizing people three days a week in the Eastern District of New York's Divisional office in Central Islip on Long Island.
Of course, the biggest things that happen there are trials. There are 16 courtrooms, nine Magistrate courtrooms, 15 judges and 11 more senior judges.
"Trials are constantly going on," Corcoran explained. "In recent years it's a shift toward terrorism, but our caseload remains high in both the criminal and civil court.”
One of the more recent trials at the court involving terrorism is the case of Quazi Mohammad Rezwanul Ahsan Nafis, a 21-year-old Bangladeshi man who is being accused of attempting to blow up the Federal Reserve Bank with a fake vehicle bomb.
Ronell Wilson, a convicted cop killer, who is currently appealing his verdict and was also recently accused of impregnating a federal prison guard, also had his trial held at the court.
One of the court’s more famous defendants was John Gotti, who in the early ’90s was a mainstay at the courthouse until his conviction in 1992.
All those trials mean that many Brooklyn citizens end up spending a lot of time at the courthouse as jurors. The court didn’t have an exact figure as to how many pass through each year, but with so many cases going on at any given time, there is no shortage of local citizens passing through it’s doors.
With all of these trials going on, things can get dangerous and the courthouse needs to take many precautions to counteract those threats. Security starts with the building itself, which was designed with laminated glass windows and structural frames built to withstand explosions. It’s also one of the few courthouses in the country with its own K-9 Unit.
Even with those precautions, things can get a little scary. Recently, a man was arrested for trying to hire a hit man to decapitate federal Judge Joseph Bianco and Assistant U.S. Attorney Lara Gatz.
With so many high-profile trials, there are plenty of Brooklynites at the courthouse in the form of the press. The press room in the building is often filled with reporters from the local dailies and overflows into an auxiliary press room during large events.
“For a federal building, there is a lot of the public coming through those doors,” Corcoran said. “We keep that in mind too and one of the things we do is to keep an art gallery on the first floor. That’s to keep the place public friendly and encourage people to come by when they are in the area.”