Sullivan County Historical Society History Maker Award 1998
The Hon. Lawrence H. Cooke
When future historians look back on Sullivan County in the twentieth century, they will probably agree that the First Citizen of the county was a Monticello man, Lawrence H. Cooke, who became Chief Judge of the New York State Court of Appeals. These historians will be impressed with the Judge’s legal accomplishments, but they will be even more impressed with his character. They will note that the Judge was a man who achieved a position of great responsibility, who changed the judicial landscape in the State, who could have gone on to achieve even higher honors in Washington, but was one who never lost his sense of roots: that Sullivan County was home and that all its citizens were his friends and neighbors.
A man’s character is first shaped by his parents and Judge Cooke is conscious not only of his love for his parents, but of his debt to them. “My father was the essence of rectitude and my mother the essence of refinement,” he recalls. His father’s advice continues to guide him. When he faces difficult decisions, he remembers his father’s words, “If in doubt, always take the high road.” When he was offered favors which would later become political obligations, he heard the advice, “I hope you never have to say it, but you ought to be able to tell anybody to go to hell if you have to.” In addition to advice, his father set an example of hard work. The son of a cobbler, George Cooke became a school teacher, then eventually a lawyer and finally the Sullivan County Court Judge and Surrogate. Lawrence’s mother, Mary Pond, was equally influential. She came from a Connecticut family of academic accomplishment. She herself attended Mt. Holyoke and taught Latin and mathematics. The Judge remembers her as an accomplished linguist who could also have taught Greek, but there was no call for that language.
His was a happy youth. He did all the things a young boy in a small town might be expected to do. He speaks of raising pedigreed Rhode Island Red chickens and sending them to egg-laying contests conducted by agricultural schools throughout the northeast where they received awards. He also raised beagles and a picture of two of his hounds which had won prizes in American Kennel Club championships appeared on the cover of a hunting magazine. He caddied at the golf course (35 cents for nine holes) which was located on the present site of Monticello High School and learned about growing vegetables and flowers. “Working in the garden was my country club,” he explains when asked what he did for relaxation from judicial duties.
The love of his parents was accompanied with high expectations: to be a good man, to work hard and to fulfill responsibilities. His mother was a Congregationalist, who joined St. John’s Episcopal Church in Monticello, but Lawrence’s father was Roman Catholic and before the future Judge could go out and play he had to learn his catechism lesson. The presence of two religious traditions in his family background may have contributed to his lack of prejudice and his openness to all people. The richness of his family inheritance soon became manifest when in 1931 Lawrence, aged sixteen, graduated from Monticello High School as Salutatorian.
After graduating cum laude from Georgetown University, he spent a few brief days at Harvard Law School. However, since his father believed that a law education within the State was better preparation for an aspiring lawyer, Lawrence followed the parental advice and attended Albany State Law School from which he graduated in 1938. One of the unexpected blessings of the decision to go to Albany was that there he met Alice McCormack whom he married in 1939 and with whom next year he will celebrate sixty years of a devoted marriage in the company of three children, Edward, George and Lauren, nine grandchildren and three great grandchildren.
The Judge’s subsequent rise to prominence is well known to county residents: elected as Town of Thompson Supervisor in 1945; Board of Supervisors Chairman in 1947 and 1948; Sullivan County Court Judge in 1953; elected Supreme Court Judge in 1961 and in 1969, appointed by Governor Nelson Rockefeller to the Appellate Division, Third Department. In 1972 occurred one of his rare defeats. When he ran for the New York State Court of Appeals, he lacked money for a statewide race and could not survive the Nixon landslide of that year. However, two years later he was elected to New York State’s highest court and in 1979 was appointed Chief Judge by Governor Carey.
The situation which he faced in the State was that complacency and indifference had undermined the effectiveness and fairness of the state judicial system. An obvious measure of this failure was seen in the huge backlog of cases and to quote a familiar adage: “Justice delayed is justice denied.” The first task then was to reform the system so that this backlog could be cleared up. It was soon apparent that some people in the system did not want it to be reformed, but the Judge persevered.
There were judges coming to work late in the morning and leaving early in the afternoon; others were taking six weeks of vacation. The first step was a standardized vacation and workday schedule. The system had to be modified to permit temporary assignment of judges to areas of the state where there was a backlog. There was increased reliance on mediation and arbitration to cut down on the number of court cases and judges who had to retire because of age were enabled to continue service to the state as hearing officers.
In the statewide system, there were 1,200 different titles to cover up the fact that many of these jobs were political plums. After reorganization the number was reduced to about 300. Equal Opportunity Offices were established in Buffalo and Albany to prevent discrimination against women and minorities in the staffing of the judicial system. A Court Facilities Task Force created a 500-page report detailing the terrible conditions in many courthouses and the use of computers was encouraged throughout the state to speed up acquisition of records and case histories.
There was concern shown for jurors. Sheriff juries, notorious for allowing people with “clout” to avoid jury service, were done away with to increase the pool of potential jurors.
A management program was instituted to secure better treatment of jurors. For example, jurors can now learn if their presence in the courthouse is required by calling on the telephone the evening before.
Procedures were changed. After discovering that each court in the state had a different set of rules for lawyers, Cooke led the effort to have one set of rules used statewide. He defended the Shield Law which protected news reporters from having to divulge the names of their sources. In rape trials women were not required to reveal their personal sexual histories prior to the rape. The courts in general were opening by allowing television and print media in the Appellate courts – which led the way for admission of cameras in other courtrooms.
These types of reform were enhanced by legal decisions which expanded the areas of personal freedom and offered protection to those too powerless to defend themselves.
All this was not accomplished easily. There was strenuous opposition and threats of retribution. With a smile the Judge recalls that he was “snubbed, belittled and ignored,” but he maintained the “high road.” When he was encouraged to run for Governor (one man offered a million dollars towards his campaign) or, on another occasion, to seek a place on the United States Supreme Court, he decided against the moves because he was afraid that any display of ambition on his part would give his opponents ammunition to denounce his reforms as political opportunism undertaken for the sake of personal advancement. His life’s work had culminated in the position of Chief Judge and he would do nothing to detract from that responsibility.
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Several years ago, Sullivan County Historian John Conway spent a day driving the Judge around the county. At one point in the trip the car came to a group of highway workers and the Judge told John to stop the car while he rolled down the window to talk to the men – with his prodigious memory addressing many of them by name. Later, he reflected, “My father always told me never to pass up a road gang. They’re the people, representative of the backbone of our society. You’ve got to stay in touch with them.”
Is there anyone in the county the Judge doesn’t know? Is there any group he hasn’t addressed? His knowledge of the county is phenomenal and he is comfortable anywhere. The fact that he has lived in the same house on West Broadway since 1941 typifies the man. Sullivan County is home and he remains the man he has always been. The courthouse is named in his honor and will house his formal portrait and sculptured bust. He has a permanent room for his memorabilia in the County Museum in Hurleyville; but best of all is the affection and pride in the hearts of his neighbors and friends.