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Judge Polier

February 3, 2018

Activist judge Justine Wise Polier retired from New York family court on this date in 1973, after thirty-eight years of service. When, in 1935, Mayor Fiorello La Guardia appointed her to the city’s “Domestic Relations Court” (as it was then called), she was the youngest city judge in the U.S. (age 32) and the first woman in New York to hold a judicial post higher than magistrate. Polier was the daughter of Rabbi Stephen S. Wise and Louise Waterman Wise; she attributed her progressive orientation to her parents’ commitment to Jewish social activism and to the teachings of the Hebrew prophets. On the bench, Polier helped lessen the impact of racial and religious discrimination in social service agencies, helped develop the legal concept of “the best interests of the child,” stressed the importance of rehabilitation over punishment, and made her court into a meeting place for activists — “a national laboratory of communication,” writes historian Joyce Antler, among “the legal system, the behavioral sciences, and the human services delivery system.” Polier was a supporter of the labor movement; during the 1950s, she positioned herself between communism and McCarthyism, both of which sought to destroy freedom, she said. She died on July 31, 1987 in New York City.

“Passionate concern may lead to errors of judgment, but the lack of passion in the face of human wrong leads to spiritual bankruptcy.” —Justine Wise Polier