Eastern District Judge Carol Bagley Amon, one of several federal judges presiding over challenges to the Trump administration’s controversial travel ban, has spent almost all of her 46-year legal career in the public sector and is known among attorneys as a fair and no-nonsense judge.
The executive order, which was issued Jan. 27 and set off protests at airports across the country, indefinitely suspended the United States’ refugee program for Syrians, suspended the refugee program for all other countries for 120 and imposed a 90-day ban on people traveling from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen.
The executive order also triggered a flurry of lawsuits in several jurisdictions, including New York’s Eastern District, where the American Civil Liberties Union has teamed up with the National Immigration Law Center and Yale Law School’s Jerome N. Frank Legal Services Organization to file a class action lawsuit against the Trump administration and the Department of Homeland Security on behalf of visa holders who were denied entry into the U.S. because of the executive order.
In addition to having jurisdiction over New York City’s airports, the Eastern District is also a hub for naturalizing new U.S. citizens.
The case was randomly assigned to Amon, a President George H.W. Bush nominee to the court who has served there since 1990 and who recently obtained senior status.
Amon, 70, was born in 1946 in Richmond, Virginia, and completed her undergraduate work in 1968 at the College of William and Mary, where she studied biology with the intent of following her brother into the medical profession, according to a 2013 piece on Amon in The Federal Lawyer, an official publication of the Federal Bar Association.
But Amon realized that medicine wasn’t for her and instead followed her cousin into law, obtaining her J.D. from the University of Virginia School of Law in 1971.
Amon declined to be interviewed for this article.
Amon began her legal career as a staff attorney for the Communications Satellite Corporation, which was created in 1962 as part of the federal Communications Satellite Act and incorporated as private company the following year, but she found the regulatory portion of the work with the corporation less challenging than she had anticipated, she told The Federal Lawyer, and began looking for other work.
Amon’s roommate arranged for her to meet Myles Ambrose, then the head of the Department of Justice’s drug task force. She worked as a trial attorney for the task force in 1973.
The following year, Amon began working as an assistant U.S. attorney in the Eastern District and spent 12 years with the office.
During her time there she served as chief of frauds from 1978 to 1980, as chief of general crimes from 1981 to 1982 and as senior litigation counsel from 1984 to 1986.
In the mid-1980s, Amon prosecuted a case against four New York men accused of sending arms to the Irish Republican Army, which at the time was fighting against British rule in Northern Ireland.
In 1986, Amon was appointed as a magistrate judge in the Eastern District. In August 1990, she received a personal phone call from Bush asking her to be an Eastern District judge.
The U.S. Senate confirmed Amon and, at the time, she was one of two women on the Eastern District bench; the other was Reena Raggi, who is now a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. Today, 13 of the Eastern District’s 29 Article III judges are women.
In the mid-2000s, Amon presided over the criminal trial of Thomas Rachko, a former New York City Police detective who was sentenced to seven years in prison for robbing drug dealers, a major scandal for the department at the time.
Jeffrey H. Lichtman of Law Offices of Jeffrey Lichtman, who represented Rachko in the case and has appeared in front of Amon in a few other cases described the judge as a “decent person” who can be warm and empathetic to litigants, but also said that she can be tough and that she “doesn’t give you any more rope than you deserve.”
“When you walk out of there you can’t help but say ‘you got exactly what you deserved,'” Lichtman said.
Richard F.X. Guay, chair of the criminal defense practice at Meyer, Suozzi, English & Klein, worked alongside Amon in the Eastern District U.S. Attorney’s Office and has since appeared before her in his work as a defense attorney.
Guay said his former colleague runs her courtroom with “seasoned authority” and she has little patience for unprepared or “unreasonable” litigators, or those who are “given to gamesmanship.”
“She listens closely, analyzes carefully and rules equitably,” Guay said.
Guay represented a few of the parties in one of the headline-grabbing cases that Amon has presided over during her tenure: a legal battle between New York City and tobacco merchants that were selling untaxed cigarettes through American Indian reservations.
In 2011, Amon was appointed as chief judge of the Eastern District, a role that she held until last year that has attracted more media attention to Amon than the cases that have come before her.
Amon told the Law Journal in 2014 that as chief judge that about half of her working hours were spent on administrative issues.
Her major goals as chief included establishing a secure perimeter around the Eastern District’s courthouse in Brooklyn.
In the 2014 interview, Amon said that her judicial philosophy about the role of judges is that they are public servants “above all” and that, in addition to treating lawyers and litigants fairly and with respect, it is important that their cases are “efficiently handled.”
“Our entire system suffers if parties do not have confidence in the fairness and the decorum of the court,” Amon said. “Judges need to be mindful that it is not ‘about them’ but all about the institution that they are fortunate to represent.”
Reprinted with permission from the February 10, 2017 issue of New York Law Journal. 2017 ALM Media Properties, LLC. Further duplication without permission is prohibited. All rights reserved.