Judge Not

Fall from honor. How Sol Watchler went from esteemed Chief Judge of New York to shamed prison inmate.

By PT Staff, published July 1, 1997 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

In the flash of a single afternoon in November 1992, Sol Wachtler went from Chief Judge to Chief Disgrace. Elected to New York's highest court on the strength of a TV commercial showing a jail door clanging shut, he would later be arrested and imprisoned for 13 months in a federal penitentiary. In prison, the man once favored to succeed Mario Cuomo as governor of New York was shackled and chained, stabbed by another inmate, and locked in solitary confinement.

Wachtler's debacle began as an affair with prominent Republican fund-raiser Joy Silverman. After the relationship ended, he embarked on a series of threatening letters and phone calls to Silverman—including a sexually explicit note addressed to her 14-year-old daughter, complete with an enclosed condom—from various locales around the country. Later diagnosed with drug-induced bipolar disorder (manic depression), Wachtler says that his illness triggered these threats, which he signed with the pseudonym "David Purdy", as a ploy to send Silverman running back into his protective arms.

Instead, she ran to a friend, FBI director William Sessions. The Feds tailed Wachtler for seven weeks. Then, one Saturday afternoon after he dropped off one of his letters, a swarm of agents descended upon his car and arrested him. According to press reports, as many as 80 agents from the FBI's Newark and New York offices took part in nailing Wachtler—more than had been used to catch mobster John Gotti. The Newark office, incidentally, also had under surveillance in late 1992 several Islamic extremists—known terrorists—associated with a local mosque. Around the same time that the bureau was preparing to nab Wachtler, Ramzi Ahmed Yusef, the alleged mastermind of the World Trade Center bombing, slipped through customs on an Iraqi passport, planned the attack, and fled the country without being questioned by authorities. Only the FBI knows whether it might have been able to intercept Yusef—and perhaps prevent the bombing—had it not been so busy trailing Wachtler.

As a result of his conviction and imprisonment, Wachtler lost his seat on the court, his distinguished reputation, and his chance to be governor. But he also gained something. In his prison memoir, After the Madness (Random House), Wachtler writes that his experiences transformed and humanized him, and taught him the true meaning of compassion. And indeed, during our conversation at his Long Island home, Wachtler proved a mild-mannered, kind, and courteous host.

PT: When I think of your situation, Jesus' admonition "Judge not lest ye be judged" comes to mind. Is there something about being a judge that works against honest self-examination?

SW: We're taught that judges sit at the right hand of God. After a while, some judges start believing this. People call you "Your Honor," and when you sit down, they sit down. No one interrupts a judge, but a judge interrupts anyone. People think you're the font of all wisdom. You can't live like that without being affected.

And by the way, my vanity was one of the reasons I didn't seek help for my illness. Here I was, a manic depressive. I would check into a hotel room under an assumed name and stay there crying for two days without ever pulling the shade up. My wife, who is a clinical social worker, begged me to get help and told me I was destroying myself. But rather than see a psychiatrist, I got prescriptions for Tenuate [a diet pill], Halcion [a sleeping pill], and Pamelor [an anti-depressant]—all from different doctors. I took more than 1,400 Tenuate and 280 Halcion in a four-month period. After a while, my mood swung from profound depression into a manic state, and I started doing these bizarre things. Yet I never saw it happening.

If you were the judge who was sentencing you, what would you have done?

I would have probably said, "He's 63 years old, he's never committed a wrong act before, he's given up his judgeship, visited psychiatric clinics, he's stable on medication, so why imprison him?" I wrote terrible letters. I'm not minimizing my crime. But there are a lot of women who call me up on talk shows to say I should have been sent away for life.

In your book, you wonder why Joy didn't just call you and say, "Sol, you're crazy. Stop it," or "I'm really going to get you in trouble. I'm not going back with you?" If we asked her, what do you think she would say? [Silverman declined to talk to Psychology Today]

She'd say she was scared to death because I was the chief judge, and God knows what I could do, and she wanted to get me arrested as soon as possible. But I can't get into her psyche. For seven and a half years she didn't turn on the washing machine without calling me first, and she would call me seven times in a day. I thought she was very dependent on me. I didn't realize that I was just as dependent on her.

You go out of your way to be non-judgmental about her.

I think that's only right. She was a victim. But she was very, very angry at me—not for the harassment, but because she wanted me to leave my wife, and I couldn't. I really wanted to, but I didn't have the courage to do it. And then I eventually broke off the relationship.

What was the worst thing that happened to you in prison?

Believe it or not, the worst moment was not when I was stabbed and put in solitary confinement—although, if you put splints under my fingernails and told me to tell you what happened in solitary, I couldn't, because the human mind locks these unpleasant thoughts out. No, the worst moment was when I was flown from one prison to another, with my wrists shackled together and a waist chain on, and I had to walk across the airport tarmac with everyone staring at me. And then the two sets of guards from the different prisons argued as to whom the chains belonged to. And I couldn't even go to the bathroom.

In your prison diary, you go from a position of shock and profound humiliation to a sort of forgiveness—forgiveness of the illness that contributed to your downfall.

You mean resignation. Up to a certain moment, if they had told me to jump off the roof, I probably would have done it. I was just so sapped of any self respect or dignity. I was a prisoner. I was dirt. I even tried to filch a bag of potato chips [from the prison cafeteria].

But there was a point at which you resisted.

When I had to go to the Mayo Clinic to be tested for cancer. They opened up a suitcase and started putting on the shackles and chains. I said, "No, I'd rather die of cancer."

It also struck me that you seemed to develop a sense of humor—which was no doubt difficult given the circumstances. Was that a survival tool?

Absolutely. After a while I started listening to the guards. A guard would say, "What're you doing, sitting there?" I'd say, "I'm resting." "Who told you you could sit there?" "Well, no one. But there was a bench." "If you are going to sit on a bench, you are to sit on that bench over there." "Yessing" I get up and sit on that bench and the guard says, "Who told you you could sit there?" "You just said that's the bench I could sit on." "If I give you permission to sit on it." Now normally I would either be intimidated or upset. After a while I said, "This is really funny." I started to be more philosophical.

To read your book is to think this sort of sadism exists throughout the system, from the guards to the prosecutor to the way the FBI handled your case.

Each one is different. The prison guard was a bully, but the prosecutor was a publicity hound. When I was arrested, he said, "Keep Wachtler here until the press is seated and the cameras are set up for the press conference. I want to make the evening news." That's a terrible abuse of power. And where did the FBI arrest me? On the expressway. If they had waited five minutes, I would have been in my driveway and they could have arrested me there.

[In a letter to the New York Times in May, the prosecutor in Wachtler's case, Michael Chertoff, wrote that the FBI apprehended Wachtler on the expressway because there was a slight risk "that Mr. Wachtler could harm himself or others" if arrested at his home. "In fact," continued Chertoff, "the last place law enforcement officers want to arrest a potentially violent individual is at his home, where there may be weapons or where others may be placed in jeopardy."]

In a book called The Abuse Excuse, Allen Dershowitz complained about people who attribute their criminal behavior to mental disorders. He called this a cop-out. What do you think?

Dershowitz is saying these conditions shouldn't be an excuse, and I agree. You have to draw a distinction between excuses and explanations. There is something called "diminished capacity," where the judge can take into account a mental illness or some disorder to diminish the sentence. But very few judges do it. And prosecutors never recommend it. Prosecutors say that just about anyone has some explanation for aberrational behavior unless the person is a sociopath.

When is something an explanation for a crime, and when does it become an excuse?

The law doesn't recognize explanations in terms of guilt or innocence—only in terms of lighter sentences. But it does excuse a crime in cases of legal insanity, where you didn't know right from wrong.

At the time, did you know that you were doing something wrong?

When you're manic, your judgment is so skewed that you think your actions have a justification. But this is not a legal excuse for misbehavior. It is a condition that should be treated. If it's not treated, then the person who commits an antisocial act could very well commit it again. Let's assume, hypothetically, that I served my 13 months, never was put on lithium, and never saw a psychiatrist. I would come out and be manic again.

There are still remarkably intelligent people who don't believe there's such a thing as bipolar disorder. And yet we have evidence that, to a certain extend, it's genetic.

The psychiatrist who treated me insisted I'd had bipolar disorder in my family. And I said "no." Then, after I thought through my family history, my wife went to my mother, and asked her how my maternal grandmother died. My mother had always told me my grandmother died of a broken heart. But then, when my wife asked my mother, she responded, "It wasn't my fault. I wasn't in the house when she died." It turns out my grandmother had violently committed suicide.

One of the key points you make in your book is the profound distinction between nonviolent and violent offenders.

I don't think any of the people in prison are innocent. By the same token, half of them don't belong there because they are first-time nonviolent drug offenders who carried drugs for the dealers in order to feed their habit. Then they were caught and sentenced to 10 years because, for example, they were carrying three kilos of drugs. We put them in prison, don't give them the chance to be educated or rehabilitated, treat them like garbage, and when they get out they're going to act like garbage.

What do you propose we do?

These days, to be elected to public office, you have to say, "We're going to get the sheriff to feed prisoners green bologna, stick the women on chain gangs, and put prisoners in tents when it's 110 degrees." Instead, I would make it a national priority to discover the best ways to rehabilitate and treat addicts, and would put first-time drug offenders in supervised halfway houses to rehabilitate them.

Knowing the system, do you have any hope that this will happen?

Yes. Not because of good intentions, but because we just can't afford to build prisons anymore. There are 1.6 million people behind bars now in this country. For every 100,000 people, we have 615 people behind bars, compared to England with 95 per 100,000 or Japan with 45. We can't keep putting more people behind bars. It will bankrupt us.

In your book, you tell the story of an elderly farmer you met in prison who mortgaged his pigs to keep his farm, then sold his pigs to pay the mortgage, which was technically stealing from the bank. And he had the same sentence as...

A bank robber. Mandatory sentences are terribly wrong. The prosecutor determines the sentence and not the judge. A woman steals powdered milk to feed her baby, a man steals powdered milk to cut heroin—same crime, same sentence. There has to be some discretion, some mercy, some understanding. Shouldn't the sentence be molded around the individual circumstance?

But wouldn't the judge then be seen as soft on crime?

If you're an elected judge, you can be sure that they'll bring up your lenient sentencing of criminals in the next election. They'll say, "This is the judge who let criminals go because he said they were mentally ill. We don't need judges like that on the bench."

A judgeship is a very political position, though we like to think it isn't.

To be a good judge, one has to be free from the passions of the law. And elected judges cannot be totally impartial. But 80 percent of the people in this country want to elect judges. They want to have a say about who the judges are. They're deluding themselves, because they don't know who they're voting for.

In a book called Drug-Impaired Professionals, Robert Holman Coombs says that the substance abuse and depression rates in the legal profession are higher than in the general population. Does this surprise you?

I think that with intelligence comes a degree of arrogance, and with arrogance comes the delusion that you can handle it and that you are in control.

What is the legal profession, if not exercising control over other people? You're in the business of judging people.

That's the business, but that's not control. Someone has to make judgments because we live in a society where there are adversarial contexts. I could think back to decisions I made that influence lives, such as the one that said that the blue laws prohibiting stores from being open on Sundays were unconstitutional. So whenever you go shopping on Sunday in New York, you can blame me. I wrote the decision that removed marital rape exemptions in New York. Before that, a husband could legally rape his wife. I wrote the case that said that Grand Central Station could not be torn down because it's a landmark. These decisions had to be made. That I don't consider control.

If you ran a school for judges, what would you have them do?

We'd never go to see prisons. Instead I would get someone like me to tell them what prison is really like. What they see on their tours of the prisons is so sanitized.

Do judges need psychological literacy?

Absolutely. And they don't have it now. To show you how psychologically illiterate the judiciary can be, the famous Supreme Court Justice, Oliver Wendell Holmes, said that a mentally retarded woman should be subject to a hysterectomy because her mother was an imbecile, and she was an imbecile, and three generations of imbeciles are too much. That's Oliver Wendell Holmes!

Maybe you should write a book on psychological literacy and the law?

That's a wonderful idea.

You've been through a great deal since being arrested. Are you a better man for this experience?

I think so. A weaker one, a less secure one, but a better one spiritually. I lived a charmed life. Every newspaper story was glowing. I was a kind of oracle. And then suddenly I found myself disgraced. In the last lines of the book's epilogue I say, "Every person who is in a position of significance should fall from grace long enough to sort the wheat of true friendship from the chaff of opportunistic association." Now, for the first time in my life, I can appreciate what redemption means, and what forgiveness means, and what hope for acceptance is about. And I learned how important it is to have a supportive family.