It was Mr. Cardozo's expertise in commercial litigation and his broad knowledge of New York politics that brought him to the attention of newly elected Mayor Bloomberg last fall. It was also his record of leadership in legal organizations and on special task forces. From 1996-98, he was president of the Association of the Bar of the City of New York (ABCNY) and, in 1999, he was elected chairman of the Committee and Fund for Modern Courts, a citizen-based organization dedicated to improving the quality and administration of justice in New York. He has served, by appointment of Governor Mario Cuomo and former New York State Court of Appeals Chief Judge Sol Wachtler, on task forces and committees charged with overseeing judicial administration. What Mayor Bloomberg didn't know - or didn't care to ask - was Mr. Cardozo's party affiliation.
In fact, at a news conference when Mr. Bloomberg announced the appointments of Mr. Cardozo and Deputy Mayor for Legal Affairs Carol A. Robles-Roman, the press asked for their party affiliation. Mr. Bloomberg looked genuinely surprised, turned to his appointees and said with a chuckle, "I never asked you." A Democrat, Mr. Cardozo is serving in a Republican administration, a fact that he views as a mere footnote.
As corporation counsel, Mr. Cardozo oversees the city's law department, which handles all civil legal proceedings involving the city as well as the prosecution of juvenile delinquent matters. With 670 lawyers working in the department, he likens his job to running a large law firm.
"I don't think there's a Democratic or Republican way to run a law firm," he says. "There's just the approach of running it most efficiently and doing the best legal job you can. I'm a believer in communication. I believe that litigation should be a last resort. I think my party affiliation is frankly irrelevant. This isn't a Democratic or Republican point of view."
Aside from Mr. Cardozo's considerable achievements in a career spanning four decades, it was his cautious attitude toward ending up in court that made him an ideal candidate for his new job. New York City paid out $459 million in damages and settlements in 2000, a record amount representing an increase of 10.5 percent over the previous year. Mr. Cardozo has been charged by the mayor with bringing this number down, part of a citywide effort to control costs in tight budgetary times.
"The mayor and I share the attitude that the courts should not be the first place we turn. We hope to address problems before they reach the lawsuit stage," Mr. Cardozo explains.
In addition to reducing the amount New York pays out in damages and settlements, Mr. Cardozo sees making the law department a more efficient operation one of his primary goals. Like every other city agency, he says, the law department must do more with less in the face of the city's financial constraints. It's a management challenge his days at Proskauer, Rose prepared him to meet, though he acknowledges that in other realms, he's playing catch up. "I guess you could say I was halfway to first base when I took this job. There's a huge amount to learn."
Mr. Cardozo is encouraged in finding his way around city government by the working relationship he has with Mayor Bloomberg. "The most notable moments on this job are when Mayor Bloomberg looks at me and says, ‘Michael, is this the right thing to do?' That's his focus. ‘Can't we talk this through?' he asks. At the same time, he understands that if we can't solve problems to the city's benefit, we will have to litigate."
A Start in Private Practice
In 1967, Mr. Cardozo was hired by Proskauer, Rose as an associate along with his classmate Mr. Stern. Both were made partners in 1974. When they joined the firm, the National Basketball Association was a client and in the words of Mr. Cardozo, "a very small entity." Mr. Stern helped handle cases for the NBA until he left to become the league's commissioner in 1978. Mr. Cardozo stepped in to take on more NBA work, at a time when professional sports were seeing rapid growth.
"I've always loved sports, but that had nothing to do with the work I ended up doing, as it turned out," Mr. Cardozo says of his specialty. "If you asked me when I graduated from Columbia Law if I would be a sports lawyer, I couldn't have said yes, because there was no such thing at the time."
Mr. Cardozo has represented the National Hockey League and Major League Soccer in addition to the NBA. Cases he has litigated include one in California involving the right of the NBA to control the location of its franchises, a suit in Oregon challenging the legality of a lottery based on NBA games, and a suit in Illinois concerning the league's right to regulate game telecasts by individual NBA teams. Most recently, he argued a precedent-setting case for Major League Soccer involving an anti-trust law action that is still winding its way through the courts.
Outside the office, Mr. Cardozo has also led an active career. As president of the ABCNY, he focused on speaking up for the independence of the judiciary, strengthening the New York State courts, helping the profession to increase the retention and promotion rates for women and minorities, reforming campaign finance laws, and addressing the lack of job satisfaction experienced by many junior attorneys. Though his appointment as corporation counsel forced him to resign as chair of the Fund for Modern Courts, Mr. Cardozo remains active at the Law School, where he has been a member of the Board of Visitors since 1992, and on which he currently serves as chairman.
An Offer He Couldn't Refuse
At the mayor's daily staff meetings, held first thing each morning, Mr. Cardozo is called on to offer legal advice on the issues of the moment. He says, "The challenges facing New York are staggering post-September 11th. The mayor wants to look the problems in the eye and ask, ‘What's the right thing to do?'" For Mr. Cardozo, the right thing is whatever will help get the city back on its feet, financially and psychologically. He's spent a lifetime preparing for this job, and he brings a determined focus coupled with cautious optimism to it.
Although joining the Bloomberg administration has required major changes in Mr. Cardozo's life - he and his wife of 37 years, Nancy, have moved from Scarsdale into Manhattan - he did not hesitate to say yes to the job. He notes, "I owe a tremendous debt to this city going back to my days at Columbia. When this opportunity came along, I couldn't possibly turn it down."