E. Leo Milonas, Lion and Defender of the New York Bench, Dies at 87

E. Leo Milonas, a resolute jurist who administered New York courts for a quarter-century and was known to rise to defend his fellow judges in public disputes, in one case sparring with Mayor Edward I. Koch, died on Jan. 2 at his home in the Riverdale section of the Bronx. He was 87.

The cause was heart failure, his wife, Helen, said.

Throughout his career on the bench — beginning with his appointment to the Criminal Court by Mayor John V. Lindsay in 1972 as New York City’s youngest judge, at 36, until he retired from a state appeals court in 1998 — Justice Milonas worked to make the judicial system more efficient, transparent and representative.

As a court administrator for New York City and then New York State, he vigorously supported a system in which judges were appointed on the basis of merit, on the recommendations of qualified screening committees, rather than be elected by popular vote.

But he was also pragmatic about judgeships that are filled by elections, urging that nominees be selected by politicians only from among candidates who had been vetted by independent panels.

Since 2019, Justice Milonas (pronounced muh-LONE-us) headed the New York Commission on Judicial Nomination, which presents the governor with potential appointees to the state Court of Appeals, its highest court. Decades earlier, the list included Justice Milonas’s name several times when vacancies occurred, although he was never named to fill any of them.

While he was highly-regarded by colleagues, prosecutors and defense lawyers for his sense of humor and warmth, he could also be an unflinching opponent.

Justice Milonas, third from right, and his family at his swearing in as New York Supreme Court justice in 1978.Credit…via Milonas Family

Jonathan Lippman, a former chief judge of the state’s Court of Appeals, said in a telephone interview that Justice Milonas “did not hesitate to take on mayors and other government leaders who he felt were impinging on the independence of the judiciary.”

One such instance arose in 1981, when, as deputy chief administrative judge of New York City’s courts, a job he assumed in 1979, Justice Milonas accused Mayor Koch of scapegoating the judiciary over a rise in crime and lax enforcement of a strict new state gun law.

The mayor said that the prosecution of cases brought under the law, aimed at keeping unlicensed handguns out of the hands of convicted felons, was moving too slowly through the courts. But Justice Milonas challenged that contention in a lengthy open letter to the mayor, pointing out, among other things, that the judiciary was only one component of the criminal justice system.

“The courts are not the police or prosecutors,” he told the mayor. “Judges do not arrest and indict people.”

In 1981, as deputy chief administrator for the city’s courts, he publicly criticized a proposal by Chief Judge Lawrence H. Cooke, the state’s top judicial officer, to randomly and temporarily rotate lower court judges onto the State Supreme Court to help handle an increasing caseload. It would be far better, Justice Milonas said, to choose and retain those who had proved to be most effective on the bench.

His grit was a trait he honed on the streets of Washington Heights in Upper Manhattan, where he grew up.

He never used his first name, Elias, because, as he was quoted as saying in The New York Times in 1972, “it’s a great Old Testament name, but it was a little sophisticated for the kids I hung around with.”

“No one could call me Elias and live,” he said.

Elias Leo Milonas was born on Oct. 23, 1936, in Manhattan to William and Catherine (Skoulikas) Milonas, Greek immigrants. His father had joined his older brother in laying track for the Union Pacific Railroad before moving to New York City, where he opened a small restaurant in Harlem. Leo started working there on weekends when he was 12. His mother was a homemaker who worked in the restaurant part-time.

After graduating from George Washington High School in Washington Heights, he earned a bachelor’s degree in 1957 from City College in three years and a law degree from Brooklyn Law School in 1960.

Raised in a poor neighborhood, he knew that the only means of escape was by getting a good education. “You would either become a doctor or a lawyer,” he told The Times in 1980. “I became a lawyer because it was faster and cheaper.”

The same year he got his law degree, he married Helen Gamanos, a psychotherapist, whom he had known since the fourth grade. In addition to her, he is survived by their daughters, Alexandra, a psychotherapist, and Olivia, a law professor; and two grandsons.

Justice Milonas when he was in private practice after his quarter-century in the courts.Credit…Pillsbury Law

He had been practicing law when Mayor Lindsay appointed him as a Criminal Court judge in 1972. Less than a year later, he was promoted to supervising judge of the Bronx Criminal Court. In rapid succession, he became supervising judge of the Manhattan Criminal Court, an acting State Supreme Court justice and then a full-fledged Supreme Court justice, elected in 1978.

Justice Milonas was appointed to the Appellate Division in Manhattan in 1982. In 1993, Chief Judge Judith S. Kaye named him chief administrative judge for the state. In that post he was instrumental in upgrading court facilities and computer systems and tightening the rules of conduct for lawyers. He also established a State Supreme Court division that would have jurisdiction over commercial cases.

He returned to the Appellate Division in 1993 and retired as a judge in 1998, returning to private practice with the firm Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman in Manhattan. He retired from the firm last year.

As president of the New York City Bar Association from 2002 to 2004, Justice Milonas warned against the threat to civil liberties posed by the nation’s efforts to combat terrorism, under which, he said, anyone could be arrested and detained without recourse.

And in 2004, he was a member of a court-appointed panel that saidanadditional $5.6 billion must be spent on the city’s schoolchildren every year to provide the opportunity for a sound, basic education that they were guaranteed by the State Constitution.

He often said that the government’s most daunting power was to hurt people unjustly, which was why he expressed concern over any diminution of the rights of defendants.

As a court administrator, he told The Times in 1980, his duty was to preserve judicial independence and preserve the rights of defendants. In his tempered retort to Mr. Koch over the mayor’s criticism of the judiciary, Justice Milonas wrote in his letter that punishment by incarceration alone would not reduce crime; rather, he said, crime’s root causes also had to be attacked.

“To condemn the courts for contributing to crime by being too lenient, by criticizing judges who have taken unpopular actions, to attempt to pressure and intimidate the judiciary into becoming a partner in the prosecutorial function is unfair and counterproductive,” he wrote, “because it undermines the integrity and independence of a court system which is the ultimate bulwark of a free government.”

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