St. John’s Law and the New York Courts: Celebrating an Enduring Connection

St. John's Law Court of Appeals Monkeys
November 18, 2019

On November 13, 2019, St. John’s Law and the Historical Society of the New York Courts presented a program celebrating the deep connection between the Law School and the New York Courts, and specifically honoring alumni who have served on the New York State Court of Appeals: the late Hon. Vito J. Titone ’56, ’84HON, Hon. Joseph W. Bellacosa ’59C, ’61L, ’87HON, Hon. Carmen Beauchamp Ciparick ’67, ’03HON, the late Hon. Theodore T. Jones, Jr. ’72, ’07HON, and the Hon. Janet DiFiore ’81, ‘17HON.

This was the third program in the Historical Society’s series “NYS Law Schools Present: Illustrious Alumni.” Founded in 2002, the Society works to preserve, protect, and promote the legal history of New York, including the proud heritage of its courts and the development of the Rule of Law. It serves that mission through educational outreach to law students in New York, and through public programs and publications.

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Bringing together students, faculty, alumni, and members of the bench and bar in the Law School’s Belson Moor Court Room, the program featured Dean Michael A. Simons and Professor John Q. Barrett, along with Judge Ciparick, Chief Judge DiFiore, Hon. Randall T. Eng ’72, ’16HON, and Hon. Mary Kay Vyskocil ’83.

Reflecting on her public service as Associate Judge of the New York State Court of Appeals from 1994 to 2012, Judge Ciparick paid tribute to a “wonderful benefactor,” the late Hon. Mario M. Cuomo ‘53C, ‘56L, ‘75HON. As Governor of New York, he appointed three St. John’s Law graduates to the state’s highest court: Judge Titone (1985-1998), Judge Bellacosa (1987-2000), and Judge Ciparick. The St. John’s nexus to the Court grew when Judge Jones (2007-2012) joined the Court.  And it now is led by Chief Judge DiFiore, appointed in 2016.

Judge Ciparick then turned the program over to her fellow Historical Society trustee, Professor Barrett, who advises the Society’s student chapter at St. John’s Law. He traced the Law School’s history from its start as a Vincentian institution in downtown Brooklyn that opened its doors in 1925 to men and women who were not welcome at other law schools historically. The demand for a St. John’s legal education was so high that the Law School had to expand almost immediately, but kept in close proximity to the bustling courts of the day.

Those nearby courts provided ample opportunity for early St. John’s graduates to thrive as practitioners and, then, as judges in city, county, trial, and appellate courts. St. John’s Law eventually moved to 96 Schermerhorn Street in Brooklyn, educating students who went on to professional success and to become benefactors of the current Law School in Queens. “Through all of these years,” Professor Barrett noted, “a big and proud part of our legacy has been judges.”

Judge Eng, another Historical Society trustee, is among the many alumni who have taken the “long and high judicial paths” that Professor Barrett described. He was an Associate Justice of the New York Appellate Division, Second Department for four years before serving as its Presiding Justice from 2012 to 2017. Taking the podium at the program, Judge Eng shared why he chose to attend St. John’s.

“I noted that the only Asian American law professor in New York at that time, Kenneth Wang, was a member of the faculty here,” he said, recalling that St. John’s also graduated the first Chinese American admitted to the New York bar. Believing that St. John’s would elevate him and give him the opportunity to reach his full potential, Judge Eng enrolled. “I’ve never looked back,” he shared, expressing gratitude for the St. John’s mentors who helped him become one of the first Asian American justices on the New York State Supreme Court. Throughout, Judge Eng said, “I’ve always seen St. John’s as my legal home.”

With these diverse perspectives on the enduring connection between St. John’s Law and the New York Courts, Dean Simons turned to the lives and careers of the five St. John’s Law alumni who have guided New York on its Court of Appeals. With deep roots in, and just beyond, New York City, he recounted, Judges Titone, Bellacosa, Ciparick, Jones, and DiFiore are part of the quintessential St. John’s law story—a story of opportunity, of breaking barriers, and of serving the public.

St. John’s Law, Dean Simons said, was founded for students just like them: “strivers seeking the American dream.” Its very first class, a local newspaper wrote, contained “every nationality, creed, cult, age, and section of the city.” It was a place where sons and daughters of immigrants and others who faced barriers to advancement could forge a new path. “That spirit of diversity and inclusion and opportunity, a Vincentian spirit, which persists in the Law School to this day, is exemplified by these five New Yorkers,” he said.

Dean Simons noted the special poignancy of holding the event in the Belson Moot Court Room because of its connection to Judge Bellacosa. Before joining the court system, Judge Bellacosa served as Assistant Dean at St. John’s Law and coordinated the Law School’s move from Brooklyn to Queens. Thirty years later, when he finished his service on the Court of Appeals, Judge Bellacosa returned to St. John’s as Dean of the Law School. In that role, he oversaw a total renovation of the building’s Moot Court Room, generously funded by Jerry Belson ‘48, ‘80HON. “This room,” Dean Simons said, “is a wonderful manifestation of legacy—Jerry Belson’s legacy, to be sure, but also Joe Bellacosa’s legacy” both from the 1970s and the 2000s.

Chronicling how each of the five judges served their profession, their community, and their Law School ably and selflessly, Dean Simons said of their time on the Court of Appeals: “What distinguished those judges was not their ethnicity, or their politics, or their connections to St. John’s. It was their dedication to judging, to deciding each case on its facts, to leading the development of the law in humane and predictable ways, and to creating an excellent court.” Judge DiFiore, he noted, now carries that proud legacy forward as she builds an excellent court system as Chief Judge of the Court of Appeals and the State of New York.

“I am fully aware that the bench of accomplished alumni from this Law School is very, very deep,” Chief Judge DiFiore shared with the program attendees, expressing her gratitude for her fellow honorees and to the Historical Society and event organizers. All of the honorees, she said, benefitted from a legal education with a strong and essential grounding in the values of justice, charity, and service. “This is who we are,” she emphasized, “products of this Law School; individuals whose training, education, and experiences have shown us the value and the satisfaction of working and living to achieve the highest professional and personal fulfillment, always practicing the Vincentian tradition ‘I am here for others.’”

To close the program, Judge Vyskocil, a Historical Society trustee who has served as a U.S. Bankruptcy Judge in the Southern District of New York since 2016, acknowledged the evening’s honorees and the many St. John’s Law alumni who have contributed to the development of the law in New York, to the protection of the rule of law, and to public service in diverse ways. Sharing her delight in seeing so many students and young alumni in the audience, she said: “I hope tonight has made you as proud as it’s made me to be alumna of this Law School.”