One of the toughest judges in the United States shares her stories of life on and off the bench, offering a candid perspective on her controversial career.
By almost anyone’s standards, Leslie Crocker Snyder has a lousy job.
Snyder is a Manhattan Supreme Court Justice, handling criminal cases. (The “Supreme Court” in New York is not the highest appeals court, as it is in some states; there’s a not-particularly-helpful diagram of the structure of the New York state court system in the book for those who are interested.) She routinely draws the toughest cases around; multi-defendant trials of drug gangs, complex cases involving Mafia dons, and courtrooms with spine-chilling murderers. She earns less than a first-year attorney at a white-shoe Wall Street law firm. She has to deal with death threats on a routine basis. She has to battle the dark forces of sexism, and persuade state legislators towards reforming the penal code. Worse, she has to work every day with “attorneys,” and you know what “they’re” like.
The underlying question in 25 TO LIFE, Judge Snyder’s story about her legal career, is why she, or anyone else, would voluntarily choose such a profession, voluntarily put themselves on the front lines in New York City’s continual struggle against crime. Snyder makes it sound simple; she was bored. She was working in the consumer fraud unit of the Manhattan district attorney’s office, and she hated it, and wanted to do something else, and ended up working rape and homicide cases. Along the way, she helped change the legal requirements for proving a rape case, and earned an appointment to the bench. There, she developed a reputation for harsh (although sometimes innovative) sentencing and became a figure of dread among the defense bar.
It’s clearly a rotten job, but one that Snyder enjoys. Despite its grisly detailing of drug deals and homicides and Mafia extortion, 25 TO LIFE is something of a love letter. Judge Snyder writes enthusiastically, almost passionately, about her profession and the men and women in the criminal justice system she works with. If 25 TO LIFE does nothing else, it shows how rewarding, how vital, how necessary a career in public service can be. It should be required reading for law students.
Casual readers, though, won’t find much to interest them in 25 To LIFE. Unlike many lawyers, Snyder has a direct, conversational style, but even her style can’t get the reader through the occasional impenetrable maze of legal technicalities. Her manifold encounters with criminal defendants seem to run into each other after awhile. And the book is marred here and there by unseemly bits of self-congratulation, as Snyder pats herself on the back in recounting her exploits. (She is particularly proud that a picture of a stern judge in her likeness appears on heroin bags with the caption, 25 TO LIFE hence the book’s title.)
However, Judge Snyder isn’t a writer by trade (the book was written with author Tom Shachtman), but a jurist, for which New Yorkers can be grateful and appreciative. 25 TO LIFE appropriately shows the dangers and the glories of a life on the bench in the riskiest of situations. It should remind all of us that our safety is largely due to the hard, unacknowledged work of the police and attorneys and judges who work in the criminal justice system, and that we owe them a debt of honor that we cannot easily repay.