Meet the 6th Municipal District Civil Court Judge Candidates: Tehilah Berman

Meet the 6th Municipal District Civil Court Judge Candidates: Tehilah Berman
Tehilah Berman at a coffee shop in Kensington (Image by Sam Raskin/ Bklyner)

The Civil Court Judge races are less than a week away, and Bklyner now has the last in a series of four interviews with candidates running in the 6th Municipal District, which includes Park Slope, Crown Heights, Kensington, Flatbush,  Midwood, Prospect Heights, Prospect Lefferts Gardens, Prospect Park South, and Ditmas Park.

Today, we have an interview with Tehilah Berman, who is running in a four-way race against Alice Nicholson, Chinyelu Udoh and Caroline Cohen.

Berman was born and raised in Brooklyn, attended Yeshiva University High School, and New York University, where she started in 1990, at the age of 16. After college, she graduated from Brooklyn Law School, and went on to practice employment and pension law at corporate law firms.

Berman, who lives in Midwood, was an attorney handling ERISA (Employee Retirement Income Security Act) litigation, pension law and labor law at Metropolitan Life Insurance, in 1993 and 1994. From 1995 to early 1996, Berman took the same types of cases as an associate at Pryor, Cashman, Sherman & Flynn, and subsequently spent a stint in 1996 at Lambert, Weiss & Pisano. In ‘96 and ‘97, Berman again practiced pension and labor law at Richards & O’Neil, LLP, and went on to practice employment law at Craig & Ells, where she worked until 2004.

Berman then took a break, from 2004 to 2009, when she had four sons. In 2009, Berman did pro bono work with Dershowitz, Eiger & Adelson, P.C., working for the defense team in a murder and conspiracy case. Then, for the next four years, until 2014, she worked alone on the murder and conspiracy case.

“My role was to try to vacate the conviction and I appealed it as well,” she said last week in an interview. “And there, I saw unfairness.”

The ruling, she said, had political motivations behind it, so she “made it [her] mission to be a non-political judge.”

“It was at that point that I thought, ‘Wow, I would like to be the judge who overturned wrongful convictions and who would prevent wrongful convictions,” she explained.

After, Berman at the start of 2015 began serving as the principal law clerk to then-Civil Court Judge Katherine Levine, and since 2016, has worked in the same role for her while Levine has been a Brooklyn Supreme Court judge.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Bklyner: What do you think makes you the most qualified for this position?

Berman: I have the right temperament, experience and knowledge. I have broad knowledge in the areas of ERISA, employment law, labor law, in criminal appeals, constitutional law and in Civil Court, I had experience doing Civil Court cases and now in the Supreme Court, city cases, and other cases, though the part I’m in is the city part. There are a lot of interesting cases where people bring cases against the city, or city agencies, who people claim they have made arbitrary and capricious decisions. A typical example is a police officer who is injured in the line of duty and then is denied accidental disability benefits. It’s a type of benefit that is much more generous than an ordinary retirement benefit.

Bklyner: What do you think distinguishes you from the other candidates in the race?

Berman: Well, I am an independent candidate, so I’m self-funded. I’m not beholden to anyone. I have broader experience than the other candidates. I mean, I’m not allowed to talk negatively about any other candidate, so—

Bklyner: What do you mean?

Berman: According to judicial ethics, you’re not allowed to speak negatively.

Bklyner: You say you’re self-funded. How much money have you spent?

Berman: I’ve spent about, until now, $240,000.

Bklyner: Of your own money?

Berman: Yeah. I was expecting it to cost $200,000, and it’s going to end up costing a lot more.

Bklyner: What is your day-to-day job like?

Berman: One day a week, there are motions. The remaining days are occupied by jury trials, non-jury trials and writing decisions, drafting jury charges for jury trials, conducting legal research and writing decisions is mainly what I do.

Bklyner: What type of cases are and were you handling?

Berman:  In the civil court, they involve commercial landlord-tenant cases, no-fault insurance cases, small claims, and in the Supreme Court, they involve different civil matters and they involve different city cases, involving disability benefits, eligibility lists. People have to take civil service exams to be on an eligible list in order to get appointed for a job. Cases involving removal from an eligible list. Firefighter claims, police claims. There are a lot of claims against the city involving unlawful arrests and imprisonment, excessive force, contractual claims, tort claims, motions, motions for summary judgement, motions for dismissal. That’s what the cases involve, basically.

There were homeless shelters cases where the petitioners were neighbors who objected to having homeless shelters built in their neighborhood, because there was a high saturation in Crown Heights [The Bergen Street shelter]. … The court had to make sure that the neighborhood wasn’t saturated with homeless shelters disproportionate to other neighborhoods.

Bklyner: How do you think you would take what you learned to the judgeship?

Berman: Well, it’s a natural progression, because I partly draft decisions and so I would use my knowledge of drafting decisions to write my own decisions, so before the decisions I drafted were changed by the judge. Now, I can have my own decisions that I think are fair and based on the law, based on the spirit of the law and I really look forward to the opportunity to render fair and intelligent decisions. … I will incorporate all the knowledge that I gained in the Civil Court and the Supreme Court to decide cases quickly, efficiently, fairly and based on the law.

Bklyner: Do you have any pets?

Berman: I don’t keep pets in my home, but I feed every cat that comes to my porch. And I have cats who regularly come to my porch. Every cat is welcome.