Associate Professor Angela Burton has authored a chapter on the late Judge Fritz Alexander, II, for the book Judges of the New York Court of Appeals: A Biographical History, edited by the Hon. Albert M. Rosenblatt (Fordham University Press, 2007).
The first of its kind, the book features original biographies of 106 chief and associate judges, other important Court figures, hundreds of illustrations, full case citations, bibliographies, and a listing of judges’ progeny. According to Fordham Press, the book “fills a major gap in the literature that will be a resource not only for the New York legal community but also for scholars, students, and practitioners of the law around the country.” Noting the influential role that the New York Court of Appeals and its judges have played in shaping American law, Fordham Press observed that “this important reference work finally provides a comprehensive, authoritative guide to 160 years of this important legal legacy.”
Each entry features a full personal and professional biography, and concise coverage of landmark cases, key opinions, and a detailed context for understanding the legacy of each jurist. The entries range in length from concise portraits to extended discussions of such leading figures as Benjamin Cardozo and Irving Lehman, from the Court’s first term under Chief Judge Freeborn G. Jewitt to the current term under Chief Judge Judith S. Kaye. First Black on Court of Appeals Judge Alexander, the first black American to be appointed to a full 14-year term on the Court, was nominated to the position by former Gov. Mario Cuomo. He served from 1985 to 1992, when he stepped down from the bench to work in the mayoral administration of his former law partner, David N. Dinkins.
Professor Burton became intrigued by Judge Alexander long before she wrote the chapter, one of the most extensive in the new book. Burton clerked for Alexander during the Court’s 1991-1992 term, after graduating from New York University School of Law. A primary reason for her decision to apply for a clerkship with Judge Alexander was that he, too, had graduated from NYU Law. According to Burton, the opportunity to work with an African-American judge in New York who was also a fellow NYU Law alum and a member of the state’s highest court “was, quite frankly, a dream come true – a dream that I hadn’t ever even contemplated.” The clerkship, Burton’s first post-law school job, provided her, she said, “an excellent opportunity to hone my research, writing, and analytic skills, and was a fantastic introduction to law practice from the other side of the bench.” She added, “I’ll always cherish the experience of working with Judge Alexander, who taught me so much about clear legal thinking and writing.”
Both as she worked for the jurist and later, as she continued her work for the book, Professor Burton uncovered a number of interesting details about the judge. Like her, for instance, Alexander graduated from high school at the tender age of 16 and started college immediately thereafter. “We were both nerds at an early age,” Burton said.
She learned that Alexander was one of only four black students in his college class (the class that started at Dartmouth College in 1944). At Dartmouth, he was on the football and wrestling teams, was a member of student government, and wrote for the college’s student newspaper. For an article for The Dartmouth in 1948, Alexander interviewed Duke Ellington and wrote an article about Ellington’s upcoming performance on campus. The piece was called “Duke Promises Variety of Selections Tomorrow Night.”
Member of “Secret” Fraternity
Burton said she was also interested, though not altogether surprised, to find that Alexander was a member of Sigma Phi Pi, the oldest black Greek letter fraternity in the country. This once “secret” fraternity, also known as “the Boule”, was founded by W.E.B. DuBois; its members have included such influential African-American men as Ralph Bunche, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Bill Cosby, Judge A. Leon Higginbotham (for whom Burton was a research assistant as a law student at NYU), Jesse Jackson, Dinkins and others.
Burton’s research and writing for her chapter of the book took place over the course of about nine months and was completed while she was on leave from the CUNY School of Law during the Fall of 2005. For Burton, the project brought back fond memories of her time with the judge, who died in 2000, and deepened her appreciation of the magnitude of his accomplishments. “All in all, it was a wonderful opportunity to learn more about the judge, who was not only my employer, but a great mentor and role model as well, and, in this small but important way, to memorialize his legacy,” she said.