Frank Nervo: Judges need legal smarts, empathy

Frank Nervo. Photo by Steven DeCastro

BY LINCOLN ANDERSON | Frank Nervo was raised in Queens, and moved to Greenwich Village in 1995. He graduated from Queens College in 1983 and St. John’s University School of Law in 1987, and was admitted to the New York Bar in 1988. Nervo was first elected to Civil Court in 2009, serving in Criminal Court and Civil Court before being appointed an acting Supreme Court justice (Civil branch) in January 2014.

Nervo’s family was originally from the Village. His grandparents’ family bakery was at 44 MacDougal St., at King St., from the turn of the last century until the mid-1960s. Before his election to Civil Court, Nervo served as coordinator of the Village Independent Democrats’ free legal housing clinic; volunteer attorney with the Lesbian and Gay Law Association’s free legal clinic from 2004 through 2008; Small Claims Court arbitrator 1994 through 2008, and for the past six years has been the mock-trial coach for the Stuyvesant High School trial team.

VILLAGER: What are a Civil Court judge’s and Supreme Court justice’s primary duties?

NERVO: Civil Court judges make rulings about the admissibility in court of evidence — such as documents, photos and who may be called as a witness in a particular case. Basically, what evidence the judge or jury can consider.

Civil Court judges also often make the final determination in matters involving disputes of up to $25,000. Often these cases address financial or employment contracts, as well as accidents and other matters known as “torts,” such as defamation claims and physical injuries resulting from assaults and battery. Civil Court judges also handle residential and commercial landlord/tenant disputes.

At a jury trial, it is the judge’s responsibility to preside impartially, make rulings only as to the evidence a jury may hear or see, and provide the jury with the law that applies to the case.

Civil Court judges also preside over Small Claims Court, which has jurisdiction over claims of up to $5,000.

In Supreme Court — New York’s highest-level trial court — the judges do much the same thing, but involving claims with no limit to the amount of money. Supreme Court also handles matrimonial (divorce) cases; mental-hygiene law matters, involving patients that are involuntarily hospitalized; cases involving real estate taxes and other property-related and real estate issues; allegations of discrimination in housing or employment; guardianship of incapacitated people, and other constitutional and administrative law matters.

What made you want to be a judge?

I have always had a concern for people’s civil and other legal rights. I spent more than 20 years trying cases in court on a nearly daily basis, representing people in the prosecution or defense of civil claims.

What is a good background for being a judge?

Before becoming judges, some had a long tenure within the courts’ law departments or as an attorney assigned to a particular judge; some with government agencies or the Legislature; some were associates or partners of law firms (large and small); a few, like myself, had been immersed for many years in civil, criminal and family law or corporate and business litigation representing parties in trial and appellate courts.

The study of law and solid professional experience in any discipline of law will, in combination, provide a judge with a very valuable and useful background. The maxim is that law school teaches its students how to “think like a lawyer.” This is very true, and “thinking like a lawyer” is an indispensable skill for any judge.

What are other skills needed to be a good judge?

The most important skills for judges, particularly in our trial courts, are the ability to have empathy with people’s problems, to discern the true areas of disagreement between the parties, and to be able to effectively address those disputes, whether by working out a settlement or conducting a trial.

What is your favorite part about being a judge?

Getting to a resolution of the parties’ dispute, whether by a settlement or a decision of the court or a jury’s verdict. At a case’s conclusion there is often, in a very real sense, closure to an issue that had been a major part of people’s lives for some period of time. A significant part of this is providing the parties with an opportunity to be heard, and with the confidence that they have in fact been heard fairly and completely, and have had their day in court. In family law matters, there is also the satisfaction of knowing your decision will provide some order or structure to the parties’ often tumultuous personal lives, putting them on a path to moving forward, hopefully more peacefully.

What’s your least favorite thing about being a judge?

It is difficult to tell an indisputably seriously injured person that they missed a legal deadline for filing a claim and, therefore, the law will not permit their case to go forward. Such deadlines, known as “statutes of limitations,” are hard and fast. This is why it is important for people to consult a qualified attorney as soon as they think they may have a legal right that they should pursue.

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