By Paula Katinas
Brooklyn Daily Eagle
“People say I should write a book on what I’ve seen,” New York State Supreme Court Justice Arthur Schack said.
He has seen plenty.
Schack, who has been on the bench in Brooklyn for 14 years, has resided over thousands of criminal and civil cases. Over the nearly decade and a half he has sat on the bench, Schack has dealt with everything from lawsuits over car accidents to whether to commit a mentally disturbed person to banks seeking to foreclose on homeowners.
Schack candidly admitted to members of the Dyker Heights Civic Association Tuesday night that there’s one type of case he would hate to preside over. “I’d rather deal with murder trials than matrimonial cases,” he said. Divorce cases, which can often get nasty between the bitter, warring spouses, are not his cup of tea, the justice said. “It’s very hard to deal with matrimonials,” he said, adding that the cases involve raw human emotions, like hate.
Schack was the guest speaker at the civic association’s Jan. 8 meeting and offered the audience an insider’s view of the justice system. While careful not to discuss any of the current cases he is hearing, Schack talked about some of the cases he has had in the past. He did not name names.
Since the housing crisis began in 2008, Schack has become famous in legal circles for his fastidiousness when it comes to foreclosure proceedings. In New York State, foreclosure proceedings go through the Supreme Court. Schack is viewed as a judge who looks out for the homeowner’s rights. He watches like a hawk to make sure banks follow all of the proper procedures when filing the paperwork. And he has often denied a bank’s request to foreclose on a technicality. “My feeling is, if you want to take away somebody’s house, you have to follow the letter of the law,” he said.
A 2009 New York Times article detailed Schack’s dealings with banks in foreclosure proceedings.
Ninety-percent of the foreclosure cases in Kings County take place in minority communities, he said. But cases in more affluent areas are not unknown, he said. One recent case involved a property “not far from where we are now,” he said. The civic association meeting took place in Saint Phillip’s Episcopal Church Hall at 1072 80th St., in the heart of the solidly middle class community of Dyker Heights.
The state supreme court in downtown Brooklyn, where Schack works, is a busy place. There are hundreds of criminal trials taking place there each year. There are between 30,000 and 35,000 civil cases heard in the courtrooms each year.
Kings County, which covers Brooklyn, is the largest county in New York State and comprises its own judicial district. New York State has 13 judicial districts. The number of justices and judges in a court are determined by the population of the county, Schack said.
While Kings County has a large number of justices, there is still a heavy workload on the bench, Schack said. “We have more work than we have judges,” he said.
Schack has presided over cases in which mentally disturbed individuals fight efforts to have them committed to psychiatric hospitals. Justices have to make decisions “on whether to commit the person involuntarily or let them out if they take their medications,” he said. From the bench, “you weigh their needs against society’s,” he said, adding that a judge doesn’t want to let out a person who could become dangerous.
He has observed that people with mental illnesses often refuse to take their medications because the pills have physical side effects such as Parkinson’s-type body movements. “What happens to them is that the mind works, but the body doesn’t,” he said. Upset by the loss of body control, the mentally disturbed person stops taking medication and “starts hearing voices in their head,” Schack said. “They tell you, ‘The voices tell me to do this or that,’” he said.
Many of the cases Schack hears are civil lawsuits, including car accidents or slip and fall cases involving people suing over injuries they sustained. He usually tries to see if both sides in a lawsuit can compromise and settle the case before it comes to trial. “It’s a lot easier and better if they can work out a deal. You try to get a compromise,” he said. In these cases, his role is similar to that of a baseball umpire, he said.
“No two days are alike on the job,” he said, summing up his experience as a justice.
In addition to serving as guest speaker, Schack also administered the oath of office to Dyker Heights Civic Association President Fran Vella-Marrone and the organization’s officers, who were recently re-elected to their posts.
In her introduction of Schack, Vella-Marrone noted that prior to becoming a justice; he was a lawyer for the Major League Baseball Players Association. Prior to that, he taught social studies in public school.
Schack, who lives in Bay Ridge with his wife Dilia Schack, “is vey active in the community,” Vella-Marrone said. Schack is a big supporter of the Boy Scouts of America, she said. Dilia Schack, who Vella-Marrone playfully described as “Arthur’s partner in crime,” is also a civic leader in Bay Ridge.