She'll be Martha's judge

Newsday Staff Writer

It may be Martha Stewart's high-profile day in court, but the woman who will command the stage starting next week is a petite, reserved 74-year-old whose daily attire will be basic black.

Manhattan U.S. District Court Judge Miriam Goldman Cedarbaum, presiding in Stewart's case, is by all accounts a no-nonsense jurist with a reputation for a calm and judicious courtroom manner.

"As a judge she's extremely fair and patient," said veteran criminal defense lawyer Sam Schmidt. "And no lawyer can ask for anything more than that."

And as a woman, she has always been a groundbreaker, taking a career path solidly dominated by men. One of a handful of women in a large Columbia University Law class in 1953, she went directly to the old Foley Square courthouse where Stewart's trial will take place, serving as a law clerk to U.S. District Court Judge Edward J. Dimock between 1953 and 1954.

"I was very lucky to grow up in a household with a brilliant older sister who I followed into the law and parents to whom it never occurred that there was anything that a girl couldn't do in an intellectual way," said Cedarbaum, in a rare interview she recently granted Newsday to discuss her life, but not the case. "And I realize now how lucky I was."

Now, a half-century later, she has serenely kept a tight rein on the legal warfare between the defense and prosecution since Stewart's indictment in June. And if her rulings to date are any indication, Cedarbaum — one of three women playing key roles in the trial along with Stewart and lead prosecutor Karen Patton Seymour — will continue her straightforward approach in a case garnering vast international media attention.

In a ruling that underscored her caution with the press, Cedarbaum issued an unusual order Jan. 2 barring reporters from contacting prospective jurors.

And late last year, Cedarbaum nixed the government's bid to collect more documents and e-mails from Stewart, saying they were protected by the attorney-client privilege. But she also rejected a defense bid to dismiss the securities fraud charge against Stewart.

In letting that charge stand, Cedarbaum surprised lawyers by saying she was prepared to issue a ruling from the bench, even without oral arguments. Her comprehensively-researched ruling noted that the government's allegation that Stewart defrauded investors in her firm by declaring her innocence was "unquestionably a novel application of the securities laws."

While she for years quietly held the ambition to be appointed to the federal bench — the registered Democrat was named in 1986 — Cedarbaum's path to Foley Square was not a straight trajectory.

Like Stewart, Cedarbaum comes from working-class roots. Her parents were both New York City public school teachers and she grew up in Crown Heights, a half-mile from Ebbets Field. "You could hear the roar from every home run throughout the neighborhood," she recalled with a grin.

Cedarbaum had many models to follow to the bar. Although her father studied the law at night, he never practiced, she said. Instead, he became an expert on the New York City pension system and helped found the city's teachers union.

Cedarbaum's late sister, Ruth Schapiro, who was three years older, was a partner in a New York law firm.

After graduating from Erasmus Hall High School, Cedarbaum went to Barnard College — which Martha Stewart would attend years later — and then Columbia Law School. At Columbia, she was one of eight women in a class of 280, and the only one to make Law Review.

From 1954 to 1957, she worked at the Manhattan U.S. Attorney's Office, where she was one of two women out of 100 prosecutors.

But Cedarbaum's career took a turn when she met and married Bernard, an appeals lawyer in the Justice Department's Civil Division, and they moved to Washington, D.C.

When the couple's first of two sons was an infant, the family moved to Brooklyn Heights, and Cedarbaum found that her phone began to ring again as former colleagues sought out her expertise as a lawyer and researcher.

"I thought I was risking my career in staying home and I was pleasantly surprised to learn that I was still thought of and now working from home," she said.

Cedarbaum credits Lawrence E. Walsh, the one-time deputy U.S. attorney general and later independent counsel during the Iran-contra affair, with helping to promote her legal career.

"I think it was because I was one of so few women in the courtroom at the time that many men had an over-inflated view of my ability," she said with a self-effacing chuckle.

Walsh suggested her for the job as first assistant counsel to the New York State Moreland Commission investigating the state's alcohol laws. In 1965, she went to work as associate counsel for the Metropolitan Museum of Art, before joining the law firm of Davis Polk & Wardell full-time after her younger son had graduated from high school. She also served as a justice in upscale Scarsdale in Westchester County, where she lived for many years.

Cedarbaum's federal cases have sometimes garnered headlines. In 2001, her courtroom was overrun by boxers, promoters and sports writers when she barred then-world heavyweight champion Hasim Rahman from entering the ring for 18 months unless he gave former champ Lennox Lewis a rematch.

In 1993, Cedarbaum earned the wrath of New York city columnist Jerry Capeci after she told prospective jurors in the trial of reputed Lucchese crime family member Joseph "Bang Bang" Massaro that their identities would be kept confidential to keep them from "being contacted by members of the media who might improperly contact them during the case." Capeci railed at Cedarbaum in his column, saying she had smeared the press by making such an accusation.

The flap eventually prompted the judge to declare a mistrial.

Even in the glare of the spotlight, she said of her current post: "I can't imagine a better job. I literally learn a new thing every single day of the week. Even when the legal issues are not necessarily novel, the courtroom is an essentially fascinating place . . .I have a colleague who says he sits in the theater every single day."

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