Martha Judge Got Last Word

U.S. District Court Judge Miriam Goldman Cedarbaum (left), the presiding judge over the 2004 trial of Martha Stewart (right), both graduates of Barnard College and each a trailblazer in her own right, professionally speaking.
Think Martha Stewart is tough? I do, too. But the domestic diva has nothing in the grit department over U.S. District Judge Miriam Goldman Cedarbaum, a seasoned, venerable jurist who showed Stewart and the world Friday morning the difference between tough and harsh.

Even though we never saw or heard the judge speak to the cameras, it was Cedarbaum, not Stewart, who stole the show at the federal courthouse in lower Manhattan during Stewart's sentencing hearing. It was Cedarbaum, not Stewart, who got the last, important word. It was Cedarbaum, not Stewart, who controlled the debate and, of course, it was Cedarbaum who sentenced Stewart to five months in prison, five additional months of home detention and two years of probation.

It is a sentence that ought to educate Stewart about how being tough doesn't necessarily have to preclude someone from being compassionate. Even though Cedarbaum gave Stewart prison time, she didn't give her the maximum 16 months possible under the federal sentencing guidelines. Instead, she gave her near the minimum sentence possible while still ensuring some hard prison time. And even though Cedarbaum remains convinced that Stewart was fairly tried and convicted by overwhelming evidence, she was willing and able to recognize that Stewart has "suffered, and will continue to suffer, enough."

This came from a judge who ruled against Stewart and her lawyers on virtually every important ruling before, during and after the trial. This came from a life-tenured judge who has been around long enough to be completely immune to the public pressures of her job. This from a woman who no doubt heard Stewart defiantly reject the jury's verdict back in March. Judge Cedarbaum didn't have to take it easy on Stewart but she did anyway. Think Stewart would have done the same had the tables been turned? Me neither. Stewart didn't come by her tough-as-nails reputation for nothing, right?

The judge also gave Stewart the opportunity to appeal the verdicts and sentence against her before going to prison. All that courteous carrot does for Stewart is delay the inevitable, however. It is almost certain that Stewart's appeal ultimately will fail and that she'll have to go to prison anyway, probably sometime next year after the federal appeals' court has looked at her case. Even though Stewart didn't get a perfect trial, she got a fundamentally fair trial, overseen by highly competent defense attorneys, and that's all the Constitution requires.

Stewart will argue that Judge Cedarbaum should have given her a new trial when the world learned that a juror did not truthfully answer questions on a juror questionnaire. That's not a reason to vacate a sentence and grant a new trial. Stewart also will argue that her conviction ought to be vacated because a government witness may have perjured himself during trial. The problem with this argument, and the reason why it likely won't generate a new trial for Stewart, is that the witness' testimony, perjured or not, wasn't material to the specific charges against Stewart.

Nor will Stewart likely be able to persuade the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that she didn't get a fair trial because prosecutors didn't turn over certain evidence in a timely manner. While that's disturbing in a case like this, and while prosecutors apologized for the gaffe early on in the trial, it's not the sort of issue that overturns a conviction. Stewart has hired Walter Dellinger, one of the finest appellate lawyers in the country, to handle her appeal. But I just don't see any game-changers among the many issues Dellinger will raise before the 2nd Circuit.

A few things surprised me about Friday morning's drama. First, I'm surprised that Stewart spoke in court. Surely she knew or should have known that her words would have no impact on the judge, who obviously had come to her sentencing conclusions before entering the courtroom. I'm also surprised that Stewart didn't show more contrition in court; telling the judge only that this all has been tough on Stewart and her family isn't exactly the sort of selflessness that judges like to hear from defendants they are about to sentence.

I was also surprised that the judge didn't have more tough things to say about Stewart before the sentencing. I figured Judge Cedarbaum would rail on her a bit more before imposing the sentence. Perhaps the letter that Stewart sent to the judge at the last minute -- a letter we almost surely will never be able to read because of privacy rules -- generated the sort of sympathy and empathy the judge displayed, both in her restraint on the bench and in her final ruling of the case. Perhaps Stewart was more contrite and apologetic in private than she appeared to be in public.

Whatever the case, one tough woman on Friday changed forever the life of another tough woman. But even though Martha's a superstar celebrity and Miriam's an obscure judge, and even though both have well earned their reputations for succeeding as women in what used to be a man's world of law and business, it's important to remember that this judge was smart and tough and determined long before Martha Stewart became who she is today. And who Martha Stewart is today is a convict who's likely just marking time before she officially becomes an inmate.

By Andrew Cohen