Fordham Law

For Bernie Madoff, time to meet justice with judge Denny Chin

Alumnus Denny Chin in New York Daily News, June 28, 2009

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Federal judge Denny Chin, the man who will decide Bernie Madoff's fate Monday, is many things - marathon runner, Yankees fan, devoted dad. But there's one thing he's not.

"A softie," said former Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who was Chin's boss for four years at the Manhattan U.S. attorney's office.

"He's not a softie, he's a very balanced man," Giuliani said.

The world will be watching when Chin sentences Madoff - who faces up to 150 years for ripping off $65 billion from investors. His lawyers have asked for 12.

Whatever he decides, it will be a starring role for the 55-year-old jurist and 15-year-veteran of the Manhattan federal court bench.

Then again, Chin has always been a star, albeit out of an intense spotlight, a self-made man born in absolute poverty who has risen to the top of his profession with a peerless reputation.

"Very smart, capable, works very quickly but weighs the issues carefully - and he's extremely fair," said Michael Cardozo, city corporation counsel.

Chin and Madoff reached hard for the American dream - Madoff from Far Rockaway, Queens, and Chin from a Hell's Kitchen tenement - but Chin is Madoff's absolute opposite number.

Chin, who declined to be interviewed, was born in Hong Kong, and came here at 2 with his parents, who settled in a cramped tenement on W. 42nd St.

To support their five kids, his mother worked six days a week in a sweatshop and his father labored nonstop as a cook in a Chinese restaurant.

Chin attended a neighborhood public school, then elite Stuyvesant High School, where as a tall, powerful teenager, he starred on the football team.

His grades earned him a full scholarship to Princeton, then came Fordham Law School, a clerkship with a federal judge, two years at a law firm and then the civil division of the U.S. attorney's office under Giuliani.

"Immigration and tax cases, environmental issues, discrimination cases, a star right away," said lawyer and old friend Michael Patrick.

Susan Campbell, another close friend who worked with Chin under Giuliani, said the judge "is unflappable," although he's keenly aware of the attention paid to the Madoff case.

Patrick and Campbell had dinner with Chin Tuesday in Tribeca. They said Chin gave no hint as to Madoff's sentence.

"We teased him about the case, and he laughed," said Patrick, adding that Chin did indicate complete familiarity with the long sentences given the bosses who pillaged Enron and MCI.

Campbell, Patrick and Chin formed a law firm after leaving Giuliani's office, but closed it due to a slow economy.

Chin then worked at Vladeck, Waldman, Elias & Engelhard and, at age 39, was appointed to the federal bench.

"I wasn't surprised," Anne Vladeck said. "He's just extremely smart, very diligent, a dry wit, never took himself too seriously, and we miss him."

Chin married lawyer Kathy Hirata, a partner at Cadwalader Wickersham and Taft. They have two sons, one who plays football at Stuyvesant, while the other is in junior high.

"He and his wife are the most powerful Asian-Americans in the legal field," said Patrick, noting that Chin was involved in the Asian-American Bar Association.

Even lawyers he's slammed are Chin fans.

Lawyer Judd Burstein, whom Chin fined $50,000 for "Rambo" tactics in court - a punishment later reversed on appeal - has high praise for the judge.

"I've tried three cases before him, and ... I can't think of anyone in that courthouse who is more fundamentally fair than Denny Chin," Burstein said.

"But he does not like intellectual dishonesty. Not at all."