‘My Partner, My Enemy’: New York State Judge John Leventhal

Judge John Leventhal is the author
of “
Partner, My Enemy
,” a book chronicling his experiences presiding over the Brooklyn
Domestic Violence Court
, the first felony domestic violence court in the nation.
In this
New Thinking podcast, Judge Leventhal discusses memorable
cases from his tenure, the domestic violence court model, and why he felt it was important to write a book about
domestic violence. Judge Leventhal presided over the Brooklyn Domestic Violence Court from its opening in June 1996
until 2008. Since 2008, he has served as an associate justice of the New York State Supreme Court in the second department
of the appellate division.

RAPHAEL POPE-SUSSMAN: Hi, this is Raphael Pope-Sussman
of the Center for Court Innovation. In today’s podcast, we’re joined by New York judge, John Leventhal
of the Second Judicial Department, Appellate Division in Brooklyn. From 1996 to 2008, Judge Leventhal presided over
the nation’s first Felony Domestic Violence court, based in Brooklyn’s Supreme Court. He has chronicled
this experience in a new book, My Partner, My Enemy, from Rowman and Littlefield. My Partner, My Enemy presents vignettes
of some memorable cases Leventhal heard in Domestic Violence court, as well as Leventhal’s reflections on how
the justice system can best serve victims of domestic violence. Judge Leventhal, thank you for speaking with me today
and welcome.

JUDGE JOHN LEVENTHAL: Thank you. It’s my pleasure to participate in this podcast
on a very important subject.

POPE-SUSSMAN: Why did you write this book?

LEVENTHAL: Well, I was taken by all of the cases that I had and there were some that stuck out to me as very, very
unusual, which was emblematic of the types of cases that judges and people experience in their lives. I thought that
it would be helpful, not only to talk about the cases, but to bring it to dramatic attention, but also to make suggestions
as to how to better protect the victims, the scope of the problem, how the problem has somewhat abated since the
court was established in 1995, and also why we should have specialized courts to deal with domestic violence issues.

POPE-SUSSMAN: Can you describe to our audience, some of whom may not be familiar with the concept of a domestic
violence court, how that court operates?

JUDGE LEVENTHAL: We started out as a pilot project in
the aftermath of a very celebrated domestic violence case, the Galina Komar case and, after that, this was really
the project of former Chief Judge Judith S. Kaye, who was really the innovator and mother of all problem-solving
courts in New York and the Center for Court Innovation who came up with all these good ideas and protocols for problem-solving

What we learned at the very beginning is that people continually come back in domestic
violence situations and we were trying to pretty much break the mold and we started the domestic violence court as
a pilot project. It eventually became a model court where the justice department was sending judges and administrators
from all over the country to come watch our court and, eventually the state department was sending judges, administrators
and lawyers from all over the world to watch the court.

POPE-SUSSMAN: What happens in domestic
violence court?

JUDGE LEVENTHAL: Well, one judge handles the case from the arraignment, on the
indictment, to motions, to pleas, to either trial and sentencing. What happened was that, one of the things that
I learned when I visited Quincy, Massachusetts when I first started, in Quincy, misdemeanors are punishable up to
2-1/2 years for a misdemeanor and the judge had great power over them. What I was struck by that there was a great
violation of probation calendar.

What I sought to do was to reduce the violation of probation
calendar. I would bring my probationers back. Those who were lucky to get six months in jail plus five years’
probation and they didn’t get state prison time, I would bring them back every two or three months for a year,
year and a half, and what we discovered is that the violation rate was less than half of the general probation population,
which is remarkable when these people were so intimately involved and knew one another.

What had
happened was, that even those who I sentenced to state jail time, when they came out of jail, parole saw the success
that we were accomplishing with probation and they asked me to bring the parolees back when they were released from
jail within one month, so that I would read them the Order of Protection, the conditions of parole, and reinforce
that the judge is still watching them. That’s why this was such a successful court because the judge was involved.
There was intensive judicial monitoring and the defendants were always reminded that the judge is watching them.

POPE-SUSSMAN: You’ve taken a very unique approach in this book with each chapter, a vignette, based
around a character or two characters. How did you select these stories out of all the cases that came before you?

JUDGE LEVENTHAL: When I decided to write the book, I went back to my notes. I didn’t actually ask for
the transcripts of the pleas or the trials or the hearings, but I went back to my notes on the number of cases and
I picked the cases that were emblematic of the types of situations, attorneys, prosecutors, and judges would see.
I picked two cases on same-sex violence and each case had another aspect of domestic violence in it. Of course, there
was heterosexual violence as well, the prototypical domestic violence situation. I tried to pick out cases which
would add to the dialogue, which would add to the discussion, and to bring more awareness to the problem.

POPE-SUSSMAN: Why did you select this approach?

JUDGE LEVENTHAL: Because I thought that,
after OJ Simpson, after Galina Komar, and even after Ray Rice and these celebrated cases, they go back into the background
and I didn’t want domestic violence to be the flavor of the month, the fad of the day, and I didn’t want
it to disappear. I figured if I wrote this book, that it would be out there, people would read it and realize that,
number one, this problem existed before OJ Simpson. This problem continues to exist and this is a problem that started
out and was only brought to the attention, first by the Women’s Movement and then it went from a private matter
to a women’s issue to a societal issue and that we should keep it in the forefront and remember it and it shouldn’t
be forgotten just because it’s not a celebrated or a case that gathers the public attention.

I think there’s so many heart-wrenching stories in the book. I was particularly affected by the story of someone
you called Deadly Dave. I know these are pseudonyms but, who was Deadly Dave?

He was a fellow who was actually the head of a domestic violence accountability group, or Batterer’s Intervention
Program, who would actually be in charge of the men and he would come in every week and report to the court, but
the thing which was so interesting about Dave is that he would tell me that, “Oh, these knuckleheads don’t
get it.” If anyone could talk the talk it was Dave and I thought if anyone could walk the walk, it was Dave.

Then the program really wasn’t doing well, so I stopped dealing with that program about a year or two
before but then, when I read on Christmastime two years following that he had killed his girlfriend and her boyfriend,
I was shocked that it was him. What made this more outrageous, they were looking for him, and that he went to a precinct
and told the police, “I’m the one you’re looking for,” and right in front of the police, he shot
himself in the head.

It was a real eye opener for me. It really reinforced that domestic violence
cuts across all strata of society. You can’t have any true assumption that someone is not going to be a batterer,
no matter who they are.

POPE-SUSSMAN: Domestic violence cases are so complicated and I think the
title of your book alludes to that. The perpetrator is also the partner of the victim. How can the justice system
protect victims of domestic violence?

JUDGE LEVENTHAL: The police are never in the home, but there
are certain aspects where we can do. For example, in England and in New Zealand, they have a procedure where you
can call the police and find out if your boyfriend has been convicted of a domestic violence crime. I think that
would really be a wonderful, wonderful thing. A suggestion that I made years ago, when I was starting out with this
through the police department has been effectuated, where they have digital cameras in the police cars, where they
can take pictures of the victim immediately, so when the woman says, “I wasn’t hit,” or, “It
wasn’t that bad,” and then you show the pictures at the arraignment, would be a big deal.

envision also improvements where the judge can have access to the emergency room records at the arraignment, whereby
we would know, number one, it would result in more pleas. Judges are in the position of convicting people but, if
you eliminate the cases that shouldn’t be dismissed, which are dismissed in domestic violence cases, then you
can concentrate and have trials on the cases that should be trialed. Also, you would have more discovery both for
the prosecution and for the defense at an earlier stage in the proceeding.

Other things that we
can do, we can have, every college campus should have an orientation about sexual violence and harassment. We should
have programs on teen dating violence in high schools. There are many things that we can do. Another thing that we
can do, we can make sure that shelters, which are needed, if a woman is to leave her abusive boyfriend or spouse,
we should make shelters more available to the women and not preclude women who have adolescent, teenage male children.
A lot of the shelters do not allow them into those shelters. The woman is then faced with the choice of either staying
with her abusive husband or giving up her teenage child, which you shouldn’t have to do.

Any final thoughts?

JUDGE LEVENTHAL: My final thought is that, anyone who thinks they know everything
about this problem is clearly mistaken. We’re not interested in just processing the cases. We’re interested
in protecting the complainant while the case is pending and even after it is over. We’re interested in forming
a partnership by all of the agencies, including the defense bar. We are interested in having a coordinated community
response so that everyone’s on board. The only way a judge can participate in this is if they get the defense
bar on board. Success for this court should be measured that any of the defendants who appear before a judge in the
domestic violence court should never commit another violent crime in the future. That’s how I judge the success,
which is pretty much unobtainable, but that’s the only way I can judge success.

Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with us.

JUDGE LEVENTHAL: It was – I always think
that dealing and speaking on domestic violence issues is really a duty. You’re very welcome.

This is Raphael Pope-Sussman of the Center for Court Innovation and I’ve been speaking with Judge John Leventhal
about his new book, My Partner, My Enemy, now available on Amazon. For more information about the Center for Court
Innovation, visit www.courtinnovation.org.