Judge overseeing Tom Brady, 'Deflategate' is no stranger to big personalities

Fellow colleagues have said that Judge Richard M. Berman is the right person to preside over the Aug. 12 hearing on New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, because he has handled other high-profile cases.

Elise Amendola/AP/File
In this Jan. 10, 2015, file photo, New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady (12) rolls out to pass against the Baltimore Ravens in the first half of an NFL divisional playoff football game in Foxborough, Mass.

If there's anybody who can take the hot air out of football's "Deflategate," it's a Manhattan federal judge with a history of encouraging fast resolutions to perplexing problems.

Judge Richard M. Berman quickly defined the ground rules in his first written orders after the National Football League and the NFL Players Association clashed over Commissioner Roger Goodell's four-game suspension of New England Patriots star quarterback Tom Brady — that settling the case is a priority, the heated rhetoric must stop, documents will be public and Goodell and Brady will have to come to court.

Berman is the right judge to navigate the pressures of the Brady-Goodell showdown, said Judge William H. Pauley III, who presided over a lawsuit New York Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez brought against Major League Baseball last year over his suspension.

"Everybody's under pressure, not just Tom Brady," Pauley said. "If there's anybody on our bench who can resolve a case, it's Richard."

Berman, 71, assigned randomly to the case, will preside over a hearing Aug. 12 after the league requested a judgment saying Goodell acted legally when he punished Brady after a league-sponsored investigation concluded the Patriots supplied improperly under-inflated footballs when New England topped the Indianapolis Colts 45-7 in the conference championship game. The union wants the suspension lifted, arguing that an arbitration that went against the quarterback was a sham.

The parties will be contending with "a famous settlement judge," Chief Judge Loretta A. Preska said. "He's very good at it. He understands people and the pressures on people and he's always calm himself, never ruffled."

Preska recalled introducing the one-time family court judge to his colleagues after his 1998 appointment to the bench by President Bill Clinton.

At the gathering of the 2nd Circuit Judicial Conference, she held up a pen that she said Berman gave lawyers when they settled cases. The pen, she noted, contained a quote from the first rule of civil procedure, which cautions that the rules should be "construed and administered to ensure the just, speedy and inexpensive determination of every action."

Pauley said Berman's unusually diverse background gives him additional tools to resolve cases, whether it was time spent as a senior aide to a U.S. senator or experience as an executive of a then-fledgling cable company that became a giant: Time Warner Cable.

Berman declined a request this week to be interviewed while the NFL dispute is ongoing. He told the New York Law Journal last year that he believes the role of a judge is to "justly" and "speedily" move civil cases to conclusion.

"This means that I pursue settlement options early and often; I try to rule on motions quickly and I try not to waste any time at trial," he said.

He also told the newspaper that he's "somewhat of a news/TV junkie" who, if not a judge, would probably continue in the media and communications business. Berman noted he was general counsel of Warner Cable and MTV Networks Inc. when pay-per-view was developed, the first video disc jockeys were hired and the first music videos were released.

In 17 years on the bench, Berman has faced more than the usual caseload of famous and infamous defendants and has shown a knack for brushing aside distractions to resolve underlying legal issues. When he decides someone has abused the judicial system, he can be harsh.

In 2012, he gave actor Michael Douglas' son a break, sentencing Cameron Douglas to only five years in prison on drug charges after he cooperated with the government. But he later doubled the sentence to 10 years and scolded the son, calling him "destructive" and "manipulative" after he persuaded a lawyer-turned-love interest to sneak drugs into prison in her bra.

Perhaps his most challenging case came when Aafia Siddiqui, a Pakistani scientist who trained at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Brandeis University, was charged with shooting at FBI agents and U.S. soldiers at an Afghan police station in 2008. She punctuated her court appearances with outbursts that called her sanity and the likelihood of a trial into question. She was convicted and sentenced to 86 years in prison.

Sabrina Shroff, an assistant public defender who observed some Siddiqui proceedings, said Berman "has a knack for recognizing exactly what it takes to run a courtroom."

"Never was this more apparent than in the trial of Aafia Siddiqui who was a very sad and troubled defendant. It was obvious he was deeply concerned about her all through the trial and his concern for her continued even after her conviction," Shroff said.

In April 2001, Berman demonstrated his distaste for lawyers wasting the time of the court and jurors after a record company in a claim against former Motley Crue drummer Tommy Lee settled with a Swedish man just as a jury reached a verdict. Berman instructed the jury to reveal its verdict in Lee's favor, prompting the drummer who had argued against settling to curse his lawyers and yell "Idiot!"

Preska said there's a practical reason why Berman prefers parties to settle.

"On the one hand, there's just the fight," she said. "But also, if we have to make a ruling, often it's with a meat cleaver. They can craft a settlement with a scalpel, a much more nuanced settlement that will make everybody happy."

Associated Press writer Tom Hays contributed to this report.

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