Hellerstein, Alvin K.

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HELLERSTEIN, ALVIN K. (1933– ), U.S. federal judge. Hellerstein was born in New York City in 1933. He received his B.A. from Columbia College in 1954. After graduating from Columbia Law School in 1956, he clerked for the Hon. Edmund Palmieri of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, and served in the Judge Advocate General's Corps of the U.S. Army from 1957 to 1960. He practiced law with the firm of Strook and Strook and Lavan in New York City for nearly four decades.

In 1998 President William J. Clinton nominated him to serve on the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York. In less than a decade on the federal bench, Hellerstein demonstrated skill in resolving complex issues. For example, he sustained the regulations issued by the administrator of the fund to compensate victims of the attack of terrorists on the World Trade Center in New York City on September 11, 2001.

Judge Hellerstein also displayed a strong commitment to the independence of the judiciary. He presided over the 2005 case in which, under the Freedom of Information Act (foia), the American Civil Liberties Union (aclu) requested all the photos and videos that touched off the prisoner abuse scandal at Abu Gharib prison in Iraq. The government argued against disclosure on two grounds: national security and human rights, stating that publication of the photos would have the effect of causing American military personnel in Iraq to die and that "releasing the photos would reveal the prisoner's identities, a violation of their rights under the Geneva Conventions." After viewing eight of the photos, Judge Hellerstein concluded that civilians and detainees could be protected against insults and public curiosity by blocking facial characteristics, and ordered the production of the 144 pictures and videos in this redacted form. Judge Hellerstein wrote: "No one is above the law…. my task is not to defer to our worst fears, but to interpret and apply the law, in this case, the Freedom of Information Act, which advances values important to our society, transparency and accountability in government…. they are at the very heart of the values for which we fight in Afghanistan and Iraq. There is a risk that the enemy will seize upon the publicity of the photographs and seek to use such publicity as a pretext for enlistments and violent acts. But the education and debate that such publicity will foster will strengthen our purpose and, by enabling such deficiencies as may be perceived to be debated and corrected, show our strength as a vibrant and functioning democracy to be emulated…. "

Judge Hellerstein also rendered strong opinions on the First Amendment. In 2000 he ruled that postal employees may post political messages on a union bulletin board. In 2002 Hellerstein joined Judge Harold Baer of the federal court in Brooklyn in an opinion requiring the City of New York to allow the Ku Klux Klan to demonstrate, wearing their masks, in lower Manhattan. The two judges were of the view that the New York Anti-Mask law violated the First Amendment rights of Klan members to anonymous speech and that the city had engaged in discrimination on the basis of the viewpoint of the speakers, by enforcing the statute selectively. The appellate court reversed this view, and the Supreme Court declined to hear the case.


Cases: aclu v. Department of Defense, F. Supp. 2d (sdny 2005); Burrus v. Vegliante, 247 F. Supp. 2d 372 (sdny 2000); Church of American Knights of Ku Klux Klan v. Kerik, 232 F. Supp. 2d 205 (sdny 2002).

[Edward McGlynn Gaffney, Jr. (2nd ed.)]