Hon. E. Leo Milonas ’60, Highly Regarded Administrator of NYC and NY State Courts, Dies at 87
Hon. E. Leo Milonas ’60, who was known for speaking out on judicial independence as a longtime administrator of courts in New York State and New York City, died on Jan. 2 of heart failure. He was 87.
Honored as the Brooklyn Law School Alumnus of the Year in 1994, Milonos was a Manhattan native who graduated from George Washington High School in Washington Heights, where he grew up. He earned a bachelor’s degree in 1957 from City College in three years and a law degree from Brooklyn Law School in 1960.
Initially, he worked in private practice in New York City, but he was appointed in 1972 as a Criminal Court Judge, and quickly elevated to roles of increasing responsibility in the city court system before ultimately being elected as a state Supreme Court Justice in 1978. Milonas was then appointed as an Associate Justice of the Appellate Division of the New York State Supreme Court in Manhattan in 1982, and in 1993, Chief Judge Judith S. Kaye named him Chief Administrative Judge for the state of New York.
During his time as a jurist, he was well known for defending his fellow judges in public disputes, and for improving the judicial system, reports the New York Times in an obituary published today.
“Throughout his career on the bench — beginning with his appointment to the Criminal Court by Mayor John V. Lindsay in 1972 as New York City’s youngest judge, at 36, and ending when he retired from a state appeals court in 1998 — Justice Milonas worked to make the judicial system more efficient, transparent and representative,” the Times article stated.
As a court administrator for New York City and then New York State, he worked hard to ensure that judge appointments were merit-based and made upon the recommendations of qualified screening committees. For judges that are elected by vote, he pushed to have politicians select candidates that had been vetted.
While deputy chief administrative judge of New York City’s courts, Milonas famously sparred with former Mayor Ed Koch in 1981. Amid a rise in crime, the mayor blamed the courts for being too slow to enforce a new state gun law that aimed to keep unlicensed guns out of the hands of convicted felons.
As the Times reported, Milonas challenged that contention in a lengthy open letter to Koch, in which he asserted that the judiciary was only one component of the criminal justice system.
“The courts are not the police or prosecutors,” he told the mayor. “Judges do not arrest and indict people.”
Later in his career, while in the role of Chief Administrative Judge for the state, he was instrumental in upgrading court facilities and computer systems and tightening the rules of conduct for lawyers. He also established a State Supreme Court division with jurisdiction over commercial cases.
He returned to the Appellate Division in 1993 and retired as a judge in 1998, going back to private practice with a position at the firm Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman in Manhattan.
His involvement on bench matters continued. Since 2019, he headed the New York Commission on Judicial Nomination, which presents the governor with potential appointees to the state Court of Appeals, its highest court.
At Pillsbury Law, Milonas concentrated his practice on complex commercial litigation, appeals and alternative dispute resolution before retiring last year. The firm shared news of his death in a statement on its website.
“Over his 26 years as a member of the State judiciary, Judge Milonas had a monumental impact on the practice of law in New York, most notably overseeing the formation and implementation of the Commercial Division,” the statement said. “But for those of us who had the great fortune to work with him at Pillsbury, he was even more than a paragon of the judicial system. He was a warm, humble friend whose knowledge, experience and gravitas presented constant opportunities to grow and learn. Many of us became better lawyers because of him.”
While at Pillsbury, he was recognized by Best Lawyers for Appellate Practice, Commercial Litigation (2007 – 2024) and Bet-the-Company Litigation (2007 – 2015).
He was also vocal on issues related to civil liberties and education.
While serving as the president of the New York City Bar Association from 2002 to 2004, Milonas warned against the threat to civil liberties posed by the nation’s efforts to combat terrorism, under which, he said, anyone could be arrested and detained without recourse, the Times reported. And in 2004, he was a member of a court-appointed panel that said an additional $5.6 billion must be spent on the city’s schoolchildren every year to provide the opportunity for a sound, basic education that they were guaranteed by the State Constitution.