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Meet the Jewish judge who sent Michael Avenatti to jail

The recent trial of lawyer Michael Avenatti for defrauding his ex-client Stormy Daniels included the inconspicuous but influential presence of the Sabbath.

In a hearing the Friday before trial began, U.S. District Judge Jesse Furman told attorneys he couldn’t work past 4 p.m. on Jan. 21 because of Shabbat. Then when jurors began deliberating, the judge told them to stay until 5 p.m. each day, except for Friday, when they’d need to leave an hour early.

It’s not the first time Judaism has become part of the record in a high-profile case with Furman, whose blunt statements from the bench constantly brushed back Avenatti’s typically aggressive trial tactics.

In a 2018 lawsuit over the Trump administration’s census citizenship question, the judge bumped up a filing deadline because of Rosh Hashanah, telling the attorneys they’d need to file a brief by noon that day, Friday, instead of Monday as previously indicated because “the Court is unavailable Monday and Tuesday on account of a Jewish holiday.”

Now 10 years into his lifetime appointment to the Southern District of New York, Furman is among a line of jurists who’ve settled into their demanding, powerful roles while adhering to traditional Jewish beliefs and principles.

Judge Jesse Furman and Ariela Dubler in 2014.

Judge Jesse Furman and Ariela Dubler in 2014. By Eugene Mim/PMC

“He is not the first judge on this court by any means to have serious involvement in the Jewish community,” said Senior U.S. District Judge Jed Rakoff, “but those of us who are Jewish are very admiring of his involvement in that regard.”

Furman, 49, is a New York City native who graduated Harvard College and Yale Law School before clerking for three jurists, including U.S. Supreme Court Justice David Souter.

Furman’s wife, Ariela Dubler, is a former Columbia Law School professor who now heads the Abraham Joshua Heschel School, a leading Jewish day school in New York City. The couple are affiliated with Ansche Chesed, a Conservative synagogue in Manhattan.

His father, Jay Furman, who died in 2015, was a real estate developer who established the Furman Center for Real Estate and Urban Policy at New York University and served as a trustee at the law school, where he was a graduate.

His mother, Gail Furman, who died in 2019, was a psychologist at elite New York private schools who later volunteered to treat Iraq War veterans for post-traumatic stress disorder.

She also operated the Furman Foundation, Inc., which donated to progressive causes such as Media Matters, the Tides Foundation and the Auburn Theological Seminary. Jesse Furman was the volunteer treasurer for several years while his wife was vice president and his older brother, Jason Furman, was secretary, according to the foundation’s tax filings, but Jesse Furman said in his Senate confirmation hearing the foundation was his mother’s “exclusive authority.”

He told Senators his parents instilled in him a “love for family, hard work, public service, and intellectual honesty.”

Now a professor at Harvard, Jason Furman was an economics adviser to President Barack Obama and chaired his Council of Economic Advisers.

Jesse Furman made his liberal views clear in college-era writings that resurfaced when the U.S. Senate was considering his nomination by Obama for the federal judiciary. That includes an opinion piece for the Harvard Crimson titled “Bang, Bang, You’re Dead, the NRA Supplied the Lead,” which he told senators in 2011 no longer reflected his views.

“Like many 18-year-olds and, I dare say, particularly, 18-year-olds at Harvard University. I thought I knew a lot more than I actually did.” Furman said during his confirmation hearing, according to a transcript, adding amid laughter: “No defamation intended.”

Stormy Daniels and Michael Avenatti at 2018 press conference

Stormy Daniels and Michael Avenatti at 2018 press conference Courtesy of YouTube

The Senate ended up confirming Furman on 65-34, with some Republicans attributing their no votes to a brief Furman wrote in a U.S. Supreme Court case on behalf of the Anti-Defamation League that supported a public school’s exclusion of a Christian-based extracurricular club called the Good News Club, an argument the court rejected 6-3 in 2001.

Furman wrote that while public schools are “designed to promote cohesion among a heterogeneous democratic people, the Good News Club is designed to do quite the opposite: to label people as ‘saved’ or ‘unsaved’ and, thus, to promote religious belief in general and Christian belief in particular.”

“In short, Furman encouraged judicial activism against religious expression, because he apparently finds the message of Christianity offensive,” Oklahoma Republican Sen. James Inhofe said in a press release.

Asked about the brief in his confirmation hearing, Furman said he worked on it while an associate at the law firm Wiggin & Dana and “in my capacity as an attorney” for the Anti-Defamation League.

“I had a client and, in that regard, took a view that the client wanted to advance,” Furman said. Furman said because the Supreme Court held that the club’s exclusion violated the First Amendment’s free speech clause, “if confirmed as a district judge, I would faithfully apply that decision as I would any Supreme Court decision.”

The brief was authored not long after Furman started at the firm in 2000. He left in 2004 to be an assistant U.S. attorney in the Southern District, where he was involved in several historic prosecutions, including the Times Square bomber, employees from Bernard Madoff’s securities firm and the mastermind of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, before taking over as the Southern District’s chief appellate attorney in 2009.

When introducing him to the Senate in 2011, Sen. Chuck Schumer described Furman as “an extremely impressive nominee.”

“When you talk to people in the Southern District and ask for the two or three top names in that district, the name of Jesse Furman almost always pops up,” Schumer said.

Jenny Notis Lyss, a longtime friend who is vice president of the Jewish Board of Family & Children’s Services Inc. said Furman has a straightforward approach to life that reflects his lifelong commitment to public service and Judaism.

“I think you can hear me smiling as I say this, because it’s just how it is,” Lyss said. “This is how he lives his life.”

Asked if it could be difficult for a busy judge to consistently observe Shabbat, Lyss said, “He’s extremely balanced, and I think when you make a commitment to live your life a certain way, you don’t weigh it all the time. That’s just what you do.”

Furman kept a tight schedule during the Avenatti trial, hearing testimony five days a week and sometimes writing docket entries himself on Saturday and Sunday nights rather than relying on his clerks as some judges do.

As he was dismissing the alternate jurors before deliberations began, he told jurors he and other Southern District judges strive to emulate the late U.S. District Judge Edward Weinfeld, a son of Jewish immigrants from the Austria-Hungary region who was considered one of the greatest judges in the country until his death in 1988.

Furman said he and Weinfeld differ on one crucial issue, however: public gratitude for jury service. Weinfeld thought jurors were simply doing their duty and shouldn’t be thanked. Furman told the Avenatti jurors he disagreed and thanked them for their service.

His gratitude did not extend to Avenatti, who took over as his own attorney shortly after trial began. Furman repeatedly cut off his questioning of witnesses for not following proper legal procedures, and the judge made clear he thought Avenatti was employing bad-faith trial tactics, telling him at one point, “You’re not going to confuse me, and Mr. Avenatti, I am going to do everything in my power to make sure you don’t confuse the jury.”

Furman also instructed the jurors to keep deliberating after they reported a deadlock, and encouraged them to send another note if they needed more information or if a juror was not cooperating.

After he was convicted Feb. 4, Avenatti agreed to fly home to California and report to jail, rather than risk Furman ordering him locked up on the spot in New York City. Furman did not respond to an interview request for this article. Avenatti’s sentencing is scheduled for May 24, and judicial ethics generally prohibit judges from discussing open cases.

When he took the bench in Feb. 2012, Furman filled the judgeship vacated by Alvin Hellerstein, an Orthodox Jew.

As a senior U.S. district judge, Hellerstein still handles some cases — he had the civil case against Harvey Weinstein in 2019 and rejected the initial settlement proposal — as does Rakoff, a Reform Jew who took senior status in 2010.

About the same time Furman was overseeing the Avenatti-Stormy Daniels trial, Rakoff was presiding over trial in Sarah Palin’s defamation lawsuit against The New York Times in a courtroom two floors down from Furman. Rakoff made national headlines when he announced in the midst of jury deliberations he was dismissing the lawsuit, exemplifying the extraordinary power lifetime judgeships bring.

“We keep religion out of our rulings,” Rakoff said. Still, he said, “I’m a proud Jew, and I know Jesse is. We don’t base any of our determinations on that fact, but it doesn’t mean it isn’t an important part of who we are.”

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