Faculty Notes Leon Friedman, Joseph Kushner Distinguished Professor of Civil Liberties Law

Published on January 6, 2015 | by LawNews

Prof. Leon Friedman Blogs at The Huffington Post on Encounters With Mario Cuomo

On Jan. 4, 2015, Leon Friedman, the Joseph Kushner Distinguished Professor of Civil Liberties Law, authored an article for The Huffington Post Blog titled “Suing Mario Cuomo.”


The death of Mario Cuomo reminded me that I met Governor Cuomo and talked to him only once. I also sued him only once.

I met him at a fund raiser during his last campaign for governor in 1994. I praised him for his opposition to the death penalty. I mentioned that Sister Helen Prejean (the author of “Dead Man Walking” and a stern opponent of the death penalty) was a client of mine. He said to me “Why does a nun need a lawyer?” I told him I represented her on the movie deal for her book. I also told him. “You’re right. Nuns don’t need lawyers, but lawyers often need a nun to guide them.”

I did not mention that I had sued him (successfully) ten years before.

Cuomo first ran for governor in 1982. … While Cuomo was campaigning on Long Island, some constituents told him about a serious local problem that they were facing.

In the early 1980’s, the prison population in New York had expanded as a result of the Rockefeller drug laws and the major drive to increase prison sentences. In June 1982, the New York State correctional system was filled to 114% of capacity. Then Governor Carey looked around to see how to solve the problem. The Pilgrim State Psychiatric Center in West Brentwood, New York, had been cleared of all mental patients — largely as a result of the effort to treat such patients with drugs and release them to their homes. Carey immediately converted the psychiatric center into a medium security prison — the Long Island Correctional Facility at Brentwood — and, in June 1982, sent about 600 prisoners from overcrowded penitentiaries upstate to the new facility.

But the local population was very unhappy about the prospect of a medium security prison being established so close to their homes. … Cuomo apparently thought that opposing the prison was politically advantageous. He made a campaign promise that if he was elected, he would close Brentwood.

Cuomo was elected in 1982 and began to serve in January 1983. Immediately local pressure was put on him to fulfill his campaign promises. …

Finally, in September 1984, Cuomo announced that he was going to fulfill his promise and immediately close the prison. … The correction officers brought a law suit in state court claiming that they would face hazardous conditions upstate. They lost.

A group of prisoners, led by one Theodore Mitchell, brought a pro se action in federal court in Uniondale, claiming that the prisoners would face cruel and unusual punishment if they were sent to already overcrowded prisons upstate. The local federal judge, Frank X. Altimari, appointed me to represent the prisoners. …

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