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Crawling From the Wreckage: Sol Wachtler Uses His Experience Behind Bars to Help Mentally Ill

New York's Former Top Judge Suffers from Bipolar Disorder; Uses His Illness as a Cautionary Tale

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New York, Dec. 7, 2009 – As chief judge on New York’s highest court, Sol Wachtler was a nationally respected jurist on the fast track to become governor, maybe even a Supreme Court justice.

But all the accolades, admirers and aspirations vanished instantly when Wachtler was caught in a bizarre plot in 1992 to stalk and harass a former lover. His startling descent from being New York’s top judge to federal prison inmate was recounted unflinchingly by Wachtler during a recent visit to Columbia Law School.

“The reason for that was my own fault. I don’t blame anyone for what happened to me,” he said during a recent visit to a seminar called Black Letter Law/White Collar Crime taught by John C. Coffee, the Adolf A. Berle Professor of Law, and U.S. District Court Judge Jed Rakoff, a Lecturer-in-Law. Wachtler was invited to provide students with the perspective of a white-collar defendant caught in the criminal-justice system.

Wachtler suffers from bipolar disorder, which he said sparked the behavior that led to his imprisonment though does not offer it as an excuse. He traces his illness to the late 1980s, when New York was embroiled in yet another fiscal crisis. The judiciary’s budget was slashed 10 percent, and Wachtler, who also ran the state court system, was forced to lay off 500 workers.

“It had an emotional impact on me that I just can’t describe. It put me into a very deep depression,” Wachtler told the students, most of who were in elementary school when his fall from grace made him a scourge of the tabloids.

Around this time, Wachtler began a four-year affair that ended badly. His depression became more profound. It was compounded by a mix of prescribed amphetamines, tranquilizers, and anti-depressants.

“You have a dream, and a thought, and the next day you wake up and realize how stupid it is,” Wachtler said. “Well, when you’re in this state, you get up in the morning, it seems twice as brilliant as when you had it at night.”

Wachtler was referring to the 13 months when he stalked his former girlfriend, socialite Joy Silverman, with hang-up calls, and anonymous, obscene letters that included a threat to kidnap her teenage daughter and extortion demands. He hoped Silverman would turn to him for help with the harassment.

Instead, she turned to the FBI, leading to Wachtler’s arrest, a guilty plea to the kidnap threat and a 15-month prison term in 1993. His ornate chambers in the Court of Appeals in Albany were replaced by an 8x7 cell in solitary confinement, where he was placed for observation after arriving at a North Carolina prison where the mentally ill are housed.

“It’s hard to describe what solitary confinement in a mental health unit is, screaming all night long,” Wachtler said. “You can’t sleep.”

When he was released into the prison population, Wachtler was soon approached by an inmate who showed Wachtler an order he had signed denying the inmate a right to appeal. Three weeks later Wachtler was stabbed in his cell while dozing off, and suspects the inmate was his assailant.

The worst part of that encounter, Wachtler said, was being placed back in solitary for his protection. During that month he suffered delusions that included fears he was being attacked by a spider. “Had I been more mentally ill than I was,” Wachtler said, “I would have become so terribly dysfunctional, and that is what is happening today” to other inmates who go untreated.

Wachtler’s prison stay helped prompt him to lobby for a law in New York to keep the seriously mentally ill out of solitary confinement and provide them with treatment. However, the state’s current budget woes may prevent that program from starting until 2014.

Now 79, Wachtler was reinstated to the bar in 2007. He is now an adjunct professor at Touro Law Center on Long Island and also heads an alternative dispute resolution firm.

Wachtler has also worked to expand specialized courts for the mentally ill so they can be treated in the community, rather than sent to prison. Noting that one out of every 31 adults in the U.S. are in prisons that cost states $52 billion last year, Wachtler said there has to be a better way.

“We just want to lock people up,” he said. “It makes us feel good and better.”

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