National News

Judge Thomas P. Griesa, Who Ruled Against Westway, Dies at 87

Posted December 26, 2017 6:23 p.m. EST

Thomas P. Griesa, a federal judge whose far-reaching, environmentally based rulings helped kill the bitterly contested plan to build the Westway superhighway in Manhattan along the Hudson River but cleared the way for a huge redevelopment of Times Square, died Sunday at his home in New York. He was 87.

His death was confirmed by Edward A. Friedland, the court executive for the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York in Manhattan, where Griesa had worked for four decades. He did not give the cause.

Among the many cases presided over by Griesa, who was appointed by President Richard M. Nixon, were two of the most ambitious development proposals in the history of New York City.

The Westway plan, adjudicated in the 1970s and ‘80s, presented one of the fiercest clashes between environmental and development forces the city had ever seen. The Times Square redevelopment proposed to transform one of the most storied, if tattered, urban districts in the United States.

Westway was to run from the Battery, at the tip of Manhattan, to 42nd Street, replacing the West Side Highway, whose dilapidated state was underscored when a truck fell through an elevated section. With about half the road running through a tunnel, the projected cost was $2 billion (about $5.7 billion in today’s money), and the federal government was to foot 90 percent of the bill.

Environmental groups as well as mass transit and other civic organizations mobilized to stop the road from being built. In lawsuits, they contended that Westway would be a harmful boondoggle for highway and construction interests. The tunneled portion was to be built through new landfill topped by parkland and commercial development.

The lawsuits asserted that Westway traffic would increase air pollution and harm the Hudson’s fish, disputing a federal finding that the landfill would not significantly affect marine life. They further said that there had not been a thorough examination of an option to trade in the earmarked federal funds for a less expensive road combined with projects to improve mass transit.

Westway’s supporters, including the federal, state and local governments, said that the highway would actually help curb pollution by relieving traffic congestion, and that the fish study had been sound. The project would create jobs and needed waterfront parkland, they said, whereas trade-in benefits were uncertain.

In 1981, Griesa (pronounced grih-SAY) dismissed all the plaintiffs’ objections except the one involving the fish study, which he said required a further hearing.

After that hearing’s conclusion, he ruled in July 1982, using unusually strong language, that federal and state agencies had “colluded” to mask key data about the potential harmful impact of the proposed landfill area on the Hudson’s striped bass, which he noted was one of the nation’s most popular and commercially lucrative fish.

He then barred the use of all federal money for Westway, effectively blocking it. After a further study, completed in 1984, also forecast only minor harm to the striped bass, Griesa refused to reverse his earlier ruling, saying that this study, too, had been deficient. He called an explanation of how its conclusion was reached “sheer fiction.”

“Two failures to justify the Westway landfill and federal funding for Westway under the applicable legal standards should bring the matter to an end,” he said. And it did.

After an appeals court upheld his findings, the state and city abandoned Westway to pursue a trade-in, under which a more modest surface boulevard was created.

Westway’s supporters said the striped bass had been “red herrings” that anti-development forces had fed the judge. The proposed highway’s opponents, however, said his ruling had been meticulous — a description often applied to Griesa himself, a soft-spoken man who was also known to be firm from the bench.

Months later, the judge began presiding over the last legal challenge in the way of the multibillion-dollar project to redevelop Times Square and a nearby stretch of 42nd Street with high-rise office buildings, a hotel and the conversion of seedy movie houses to legitimate theaters and shops.

Numerous other suits, claiming wrongs including antitrust violations and the unlawful taking of private property, had been dismissed by other judges. The suit before Griesa argued that the state and city had failed to adopt sufficient provisions to mitigate the increased pollution expected from the added traffic and commercial activity.

But the judge rejected the claim, finding acceptable “the commitment by the city to assure the necessary mitigation measures” through steps like revising no-standing regulations and traffic-light timing and providing drop-off space for taxis to reduce pollution-enhancing traffic congestion. In another widely noted decision, Griesa, after 13 years of litigation, ruled in 1986 that the FBI had violated the rights of the Socialist Workers Party, a Trotskyist group, from the 1950s to the ‘70s by planting informants, surreptitiously entering party-related premises and engaging in other spying activities.

Where the Justice Department had listed the party as a subversive communist organization as far back as 1948, the FBI’s actions had been directed “against entirely lawful and peaceful political activities” of the party, the judge found.

In 1978 he had held Attorney General Griffin Bell in contempt of court for refusing to turn over confidential FBI informant files. An appeals court later overturned the contempt citation.

In 2010, Griesa drew attention by ordering the irreverent online publication Gawker to remove images of parts of 12 pages from “America by Heart,” a forthcoming book by Sarah Palin, the former governor of Alaska and Republican vice presidential candidate. The book’s publisher had charged copyright violation; Gawker, which has since shut down, called it permissible “fair use.”

Griesa ruled that the posting exceeded fair use because it involved a “substantial portion of the book,” and that Gawker’s action would cause the publisher economic harm. Gawker agreed to remove the material.

In another well-publicized case, which had dragged on for a decade and drawn drew deep interest in international securities markets, Griesa, in decisions handed down in 2011 and 2012, ruled that Argentina had to pay the full value of billions of dollars worth of bonds to U.S. hedge funds that had bought them at a deep discount when Argentina defaulted on its debts in 2001. The hedge funds had sued for payment at full value.

The Argentine government called the plaintiffs “vulture funds,” but Griesa, in a ruling upheld by an appeals court, said that “after 10 years of litigation, this is a just result.”

Thomas Poole Griesa was born in Kansas City, Missouri, on Oct. 11, 1930, to Charles and Stella Griesa, both fervent Republicans. His father was a bank vice president. After graduating in 1952 from Harvard, where he studied classical languages and ancient history, he served in the Coast Guard and earned a law degree at Stanford Law School.

He then returned east, to Washington, to be a litigator in the admiralty and shipping unit of the Justice Department. He joined the Manhattan law firm Davis Polk & Wardwell in 1961 and was made a partner in 1970.

Nixon appointed him to the federal bench two years later. Griesa served as chief judge from 1993 to 2000, when he gained senior status.

A harpsichordist and pianist, he often performed chamber music with friends. His wife, the former Christine Meyer, died in 2015. He leaves no immediate survivors.