October 25, 2010

Roberts J.D. ’53, Model for ‘The Bonfire of the Vanities’ Judge, Dies

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Burton B. Roberts J.D. ’53, the outspoken judge who was the model for the cranky jurist in The Bonfire of the Vanities, has died. He was 88.

The Hebrew Home for the Aged in the Bronx said Monday that Roberts, a resident there, died Sunday.

Roberts spent a half-century in public service law as a prosecutor, judge and chief administrative judge in the Bronx.

Roberts was the model for Myron Kovitsky, a rare hero in Tom Wolfe’s acclaimed novel The Bonfire of the Vanities. Both the real and the fictional judges were famous for their tempers and rants from the bench.

But Roberts was also greatly admired for his compassion, his sense of justice and his legal acumen.

“He’s one of the great figures in New York,” Wolfe has said of Roberts, to whom Bonfire is dedicated. “Probably the greatest single figure I’ve run into.”

Roberts’ career began as a Manhattan prosecutor in 1949. He became Bronx district attorney in 1968 and a Bronx judge in 1973. He became the county’s administrative judge in 1984. The position largely involved staffing, scheduling and assigning cases, but Roberts also occasionally presided over contentious trials and hearings.

One of the most notorious was the 1991 trial of Julio Gonzalez, who killed 87 people by setting fire to an illegal social club called Happy Land. With the courtroom packed full of sobbing, angry relatives — many of them Honduran immigrants — and reporters fighting over scarce seats, Roberts made a daily practice, at top volume, of lecturing lawyers, cutting off rambling witnesses and chewing out journalists for rustling their papers.

It was like a scene right out of Bonfire.

“That case had to be run in a fashion so that both sides would receive a fair trial,” Roberts said. “No histrionics. No emotion run amok. I know how to control the condition of a courtroom. I can be tough when it’s important to be tough.”

He left the court in 1998 at the mandatory retirement age of 76.

But retirement for the indefatigable Roberts lasted only about as long as other people’s vacations. Three weeks after walking out of the courthouse, he walked into a new job in Manhattan at the heavyweight, politically connected law firm of Fischbein Badillo Wagner Harding.

It was the first time he had ever worked in the private sector. Yet within a year, he had turned his legal smarts into an incredible legal coup: He masterminded a successful effort to move from the Bronx to Albany the trial of four police officers charged in the notorious killing of Amadou Diallo, an unarmed African immigrant.

Roberts, working for the defense, argued that pretrial publicity made it impossible for the cops to get a fair trial in the very courthouse where he himself had worked for decades.

An appeals court agreed and took the exceedingly rare step of granting the change of venue from a mostly minority county to a mostly white county.

“If ever a case warranted this extreme remedy, this is it,” Roberts said.

The officers were eventually acquitted.

Roberts held degrees from Cornell University School of Law and New York University School of Law. He served in the Army in Europe for two years during World War II.

He is survived by his wife, Gerhild. The couple had no children.

Original Author: The Associated Press