Many judges have been known to sprinkle their decisions with mentions of great minds like Jefferson or Shakespeare.
But when New York lawyers see rulings citing authorities like SpongeBob SquarePants, Laurel and Hardy, and Flip Wilson, some of them have come to recognize the unmistakable hand of a prolific, if unorthodox, judge who presides in Staten Island Civil Court: Philip S. Straniere.
In 14 years on the bench, Judge Straniere has built a following for entertaining judicial writing that tends to take some twists and turns. He has been known to opine for no obvious reason that Papa John’s does not sell what New Yorkers call pizza and that Clark Kent “was in fact only a person who understood the difference between right and wrong.”
Judge Straniere is the bard of the Staten Island courts, offering, in all manner of disputes, homespun advice, original lyrics, puns and, on occasion, withering sarcasm that can make a decision must-reading — even if it seems highly unlikely to alter the course of American jurisprudence.
After one lawyer suggested that a ruling of his was not adequately supported, he responded by footnoting every word in the first paragraph of a later decision, including “a,” “the” and “two” (“the cardinal number between one and three in the Arabic number system probably derived from Old English,” according to Footnote 4).
During the recession, New York civil courts like Judge Straniere’s have been especially busy because credit card companies sue there for past-due bills up to $25,000. A string of decisions that have included eye-rolling exasperation at the credit card companies has won him new followers.
Consumer lawyers passed around a ruling by him that described the ordeal of credit card customers who run afoul of company rules created in distant states. Credit card country, he wrote, is “like the Land of Oz, run by a Wizard who no one has ever seen.”
Another favorite was one that said Citibank’s logic in justifying astronomical interest rates would have impressed Vito Corleone, the godfather in “The Godfather.”
But for Judge Straniere’s longtime fans, his new followers are late to the party. Charles Apotheker, an acting State Supreme Court justice in Rockland County, said he had been following the oeuvre for years.
Whenever he comes across a Straniere ruling, Justice Apotheker said, “I have to read it because I’m sure there will be some little twist or something that he wants to share that has very little to do with the decision.” These rhetorical touches, Justice Apotheker said, set Judge Straniere apart from run-of-the-mill judges, who can be “just generally boring.”
In his courtroom on Castleton Avenue, Judge Straniere sometimes offers a chuckle or a pun, as he did one day recently, his cheeks rosy behind his bushy white mustache. But it is at his desk in his cozy chambers that his creativity is truly unleashed.
His cases bring all kinds of things to mind, he said. Like Bartholomew Cubbins, the Dr. Seuss character; Old Yeller; and Mad Magazine, all of which he has found relevant to one issue or another. “I have a mind that can remember all these ridiculous details,” he said.
Still, there is no substitute for looking things up. Along with the usual legal treatises, he pointed out, he keeps other resources close at hand, including an impressive collection of Broadway cast recordings arranged alphabetically and several books of quotations. “Will Rogers is a good source,” he said.
Judge Straniere’s opinions are exhaustively researched. One, in June, included references to “The Music Man,” “The Miracle Worker,” “Oklahoma” and “Seinfeld.”
Not that there’s anything wrong with that.
Surrounded by baseball memorabilia, the judge described his decision-writing process. He will consider the case at hand. Sometimes, inspiration will strike. In the case of one Louis Raiolo v. B.A.C. Home Loans, for example, he sat down after a trial last fall that concerned the plaintiff’s claims that the defendant had damaged his credit. The controversy included evidence that Mr. Raiolo had defaulted on mortgages for investment properties he had bought in Florida.
The man had been trying to live the American dream, the judge recalled thinking. Voilà: He opened his decision with the words to “The American Dream,” a song from “Miss Saigon.” “Come and get more than your share,” the song says.
A lyric here, a legal precedent there and pretty soon he will have one of the hundreds of decisions he writes every year. “Sometimes,” he said, “I’ll think, ‘This is really going someplace.’ ”
For example, in the case of a movie studio sued by a landlord for rent due after a hopeful start to their business dealings he wrote: “Respondents at this point believed life is beautiful and that they would soon be enjoying the sweet smell of success.” The site “on the waterfront” had a “rocky” history before the landlord decided there was some “monkey business” and put a “big chill,” and their dreams went “up in smoke,” he continued.
Every line is not Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., though there are some similarities in the mustaches of the two judges. But ever since he got a laugh in the fourth-grade play in elementary school on Staten Island, Judge Straniere said, he has been hooked on humor.
Now 63, Judge Straniere was first elected to the bench in 1996, after years of private practice, some of it with his brother, Robert, a Republican who represented Staten Island in the Assembly for years. He is married with three grown children.
A graduate of Wagner College, on Staten Island, and New York University Law School, Judge Straniere decided early on that he would write a full decision in every case so that people would know why they won or lost, he said. He said his goal was to make his decisions understandable.
“If you refer to ‘The Wizard of Oz,’ everyone says, ‘I understand that,’ ” he said.
It is no accident that his rulings may be mistaken for performance art. He has long flirted with acting, working in summer stock as a young man and in community theater in more recent years. He played Nathan Detroit in “Guys and Dolls.”
Traci Batiancela, his secretary, said: “I think people who work for comedians don’t laugh and smile as much as we do here.”
In the decision in which he cited “Miss Saigon,” for example, there was a quotation: “This is another fine mess you’ve gotten me into.”
Again, not Oliver Wendell Holmes, as Footnote 10 made clear in clarifying the source: “Oliver Hardy to Stanley Laurel on numerous occasions.”