In Memoriam: E. Leo Milonas

The New York City Bar Association mourns the passing of E. Leo Milonas, who served as President of the Association from 2002-2004.

After beginning his career in small-firm and solo practice, Judge Milonas served 27 years in New York’s judiciary, sitting in the Criminal Court, Supreme Court, the Appellate Division and in various administrative positions, including as Chief Administrative Judge.

“Having spent my life in different roles in the practice of law and in the judiciary, I bring a view from the inside of all of them to my new role,” he said in his inaugural address at the City Bar. “So I stand here as a representative of many segments of our profession, interested in the welfare of each of them, and therefore the welfare of the whole.”

Two years later, in his farewell address, he said that one lesson he learned as President “is that much of our work is very much like the practice of law” in that “it is responsive, and dictated by events outside of our control.”

So it was that his tenure, and the work of the City Bar in those years, was very much taken up with the aftermath of 9/11, and he heartily embraced the issues at the time surrounding due process and the rule of law. He noted with pride that the City Bar was “by far the leading bar association in the United States in addressing the full range of issues flowing from the ‘war on terrorism.’” He cited the City Bar’s amicus briefs – the only briefs filed by bar associations – in the Supreme Court cases of Guantanamo detainees and of Jose Padilla, as well as the landmark report by the Human Rights and Military Affairs Committees on legal standards governing interrogations of detainees, the issuance of which was perfectly timed with the public release of the Abu Ghraib videos.

Judge Milonas wrote, “By arguing that any person in the United States can be arrested anywhere and detained without recourse until the end of the ‘war on terror,’ an end which may realistically never come, the President poses the threat of extensions of the war power to curtail other civil liberties,” and that the core rights embedded in our Constitution and law “have great resonance when times are difficult, as well as in times of peace. Indeed, the nation was founded in turbulent times, by founding fathers who were careful to provide protections for Americans during such times. It is often said the Constitution is not a ‘suicide pact,’ but neither is it a fair weather friend.”

Judge Milonas did find time to address his other priorities. He was a vocal advocate of merit appointment to the judiciary, but also a realist in calling for reform within the current elective system: “For the process to have any credibility, the screening committees must be made more independent, must be allowed to recommend a limited number of candidates for each judicial vacancy, and the political leaders must pledge to only select candidates from those approved,” he said.

He was a strong champion of diversifying the legal profession, saying that “litigants who enter our nation’s courts and the lawyers who practice in them deserve the assurance that justice exists for everyone, and a legal profession that is reflective of modern society is a key component of that assurance.” During his tenure, the City Bar launched its Statement of Diversity Principles, signed by 87 law firms and corporate law departments, planned the launch of its Office for Diversity, and expanded its definition of diversity to encompass not only gender, race and ethnicity, but all traditionally underrepresented groups. He also stressed the importance of preparing the next generation of lawyers, saying, “Instead of bending the will of our young to our profession, our profession should appreciate who and what they are and accommodate itself to their rational and reasonable needs.”

During Judge Milonas’s tenure, the City Bar took the lead in the effort to allow same-sex marriage in New York, issuing reports and testimony well before the cause gained momentum. “Surely, there are many legal issues to be sorted through,” he wrote, “but the basic principle remains that persons of the same sex should be entitled to the legal rights and obligations of marriage to the same extent as opposite-sex couples.”

Last but not least, E. Leo Milonas is remembered universally at the City Bar as being a joy to work with, and for his warmth and sense of humor.