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Wed Jul 3 10:43:25 MDT 2002
NY Times, July 3, 2002
Elliott Wilk, 60, Judge and Dry Wit, Dies
By DOUGLAS MARTIN
Elliott Wilk, a state judge who mixed a leftist outlook, shrewd analysis
and a dry wit to ride herd over cases from Woody Allen's custody battle to
the rights of the homeless, died yesterday at his home in Manhattan. He was
The cause was brain cancer, said his wife, Betty Levinson.
First as a Civil Court judge and then as a justice on the State Supreme
Court, both in Manhattan, he seemed to relish confrontations with the rich
and powerful. In 1981, Judge Wilk sentenced two landlords to 30 days in
jail for harassing tenants, an offense that had previously drawn only fines.
Landlords' lawyers were so convinced he was prejudiced against them that in
1982 one of them, Lawrence P. Wolf, requested that the State Commission on
Judicial Conduct investigate him.
It did, but Judge Wilk filed his own suit to challenge the commission's
jurisdiction. The investigation continued, but no charges were filed.
His liberal reputation was built on prominent rulings like the one in 1999
against the city's attempt to require the homeless to work in exchange for
shelter. In a 1980 decision, he ruled that a landlord could not evict a
tenant for sharing an apartment with a man who was not her husband, a
decision that helped lay the groundwork for similar rights for homosexuals.
In 1985, he ordered the city to provide help to foster children after they
reached 18. In 1990, he ordered Empire Blue Cross Blue Shield to pay
$150,000 for a potentially life-saving bone-marrow transplant, which the
insurer had claimed was experimental and therefore not covered. In 1998, he
blocked the City University of New York from ending remedial education.
His greatest prominence came in the 1993 fight between Woody Allen and Mia
Farrow for custody of their three children. In finding in favor of Ms.
Farrow, he dryly noted that Mr. Allen did not know the names of his
children's friends or pets, nor which of the children slept in the same
room. He was scathing about Mr. Allen's relationship with one of Ms.
Farrow's adopted children, Soon-Yi Previn, who later became Mr. Allen's
wife. Ms. Farrow expressed her gratitude in 1995 by naming a child she
adopted Gabriel Wilk Farrow.
Justice Wilk's verbal acidity was clearly evidenced in a 1990 case in which
he assessed damages of $4 million against Robert Guccione, the publisher of
Penthouse magazine, for requiring an employee to have sex with business
associates. "Sexual slavery is not part of her job description," he said.
In 1997, when a man claimed that his ears were damaged at a heavy metal
rock concert, Justice Wilk noted that despite the pain, the man had stayed
for the whole concert.
The judge's personal style was as direct as his language. He shunned robes,
and tried unsuccessfully to convince court personnel not to call him "your
honor." His phone message gave just his name and his clerk's name, with no
titles. He acknowledged in writing the contribution clerks made to his
He had a picture of Che Guevara, the Cuban revolutionary, on his office
wall. In his biography, in a section on his requirements for courtroom
decorum, he wrote, "All weapons must be checked at the door."
In an interview in Newsday in 1990, Justice Ira Globerman of State Supreme
Court in the Bronx, a roommate of Justice Wilk in law school, said, "If he
does things that are unconventional, it's because he thought about them."
Elliott Kenneth Wilk was born in Brooklyn on Aug. 1, 1941, and grew up in
Laurelton, Queens. His father, Louis, was a lawyer and a political
conservative. When his elementary school classmates were upset that their
teacher was black, his mother, Beatrice, gave him a lecture on tolerance,
which he mentioned as an adult, his wife said.
He graduated from the University of Rochester as an English major, and from
the New York University Law School in 1966. He worked as a lawyer in Newark
for Vista, a sort of domestic Peace Corps. He next served as a lawyer with
the Mass Defense Project of the National Lawyers Guild, a left-leaning
professional organization founded in 1937 to counter the American Bar
Association's exclusion of black lawyers. He joined the Legal Aid Society
in Manhattan in 1972.
He was elected to the Civil Court in 1977, and in 1984 was designated an
acting Supreme Court justice. After running and losing repeatedly for his
own place on the Supreme Court a laborious process that involves being
selected by a panel of legal experts before facing the voters he finally
won in 1994.
In addition to his wife, Justice Wilk is survived by two sons, Daniel, of
Manhattan, and David, of Brooklyn; and a sister, Sondra Wilk of Manhattan.
In 1995, his order stopping the bulldozing of city-owned buildings on the
Lower East Side particularly angered Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani. The mayor
said the judge represented "ideology run amok." It was a phrase that
Justice Wilk emblazoned on the shirt he wore for the New York City Marathon.
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