Meet New York’s ‘smart’ and ‘humorless’ new redistricting master, Ronnie Mann

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Roanne L. (Ronnie) Mann, the magistrate judge assigned yesterday to oversee the state's redistricting process, is a registered Democrat, according to city records, and a "very smart, but humorless jurist," according to an attorney who spent years dealing with her in one high-profile case.

Mann was appointed yesterday after a three-judge panel denied a request from state lawmakers to dismiss a challenge to their proposed new district lines, which was filed by voters in Brooklyn.

Mann, a low-profile jurist, is now in a position of considerable power, as incumbent lawmakers from the majority parties in each legislative house seek to make their districts as "safe" as possible in time for the upcoming elections through the famously partisan, once-a-decade redistricting process. But just how much sway Mann, and the presiding three-judge panel, will have over the process will depend in part on whether Governor Andrew Cuomo follows through on his original promise to veto the legislature's lines or instead reaches some sort of compromise with the legislature by which he signs off on their lines in exchange for promises of redistricting reform in the future.

(Mann and the three-judge panel will have much more leeway to change the legislature's lines, or even to disregard them, if the governor issues a veto.)

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Mann's public record is not extensive. But Lloyd Constantine, a former top adviser to Governor Eliot Spitzer, offered a detailed description of his interactions with her in his book, Priceless, about an anti-trust case he helped bring against Visa and Mastercard. 

Mann, who was appointed to the Eastern District as a magistrate judge in 1994, oversaw the massive pre-trial discovery process, by which both sides sought to obtain records and depositions.

(A magistrate judge acts as a kind of assistant to federal district judges, presiding over arraignments, hearing misdemeanor cases, holding hearings, supervising discovery, setting bail, and performing other such duties. District judges are commonly referred to as "Article III judges," because their appointment confers the lifetime tenure outlined in Article III of the Constitution, while magistrate judges are typically referred to as "Article I judges," because they fall under the Congress's power to create judgeships of limited jurisdiction, and are appointed for eight-year terms.)

Mediating, and ruling, on the discovery process in the anti-trust case, which lasted several years and involved more than 350 motions, was "an important task that Mann did well," Constantine wrote, though he said he never "caught [her] smiling (at least at me) in the seven active years of the Merchants' case."

Last fall, in a case that made headlines in the legal community, Mann recommended awarding more than $80,000 in attorneys fees, at a rate of $300 an hour, to the lawyer for a woman who was awarded just $500 in compensatory damages for an arrest made by a private police officer at the Starrett City complex in Brooklyn. (The district judge agreed with Mann's recommendation last month.)

Prior to her appointment to the Eastern District, Mann spent nearly a decade at the litigation specialty firm Stein, Zauderer, Ellenhorn, Frischer & Sharp, after having spent more than a decade in public service, according to her biography on the court's website.

She graduated Stanford Law in 1975, having served as associate managing editor of the Stanford Law Review, then worked in the appeals division of the Manhattan District Attorney's office before clerking at the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals. She served for two years in the civil division of the U.S. Department of Justice under Jimmy Carter in the late 1970s, and then spent eight years as a prosecutor in the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Southern District of New York, serving under Robert Fiske, John Martin Jr. and Rudy Giuliani.

Mann is registered as a Democrat, according to records maintained by the city's Board of Elections, but does not appear to be particularly active in the party, beyond voting regularly in primary and general elections. She has not donated to any New York state or federal political candidates, according to public records.

Before Stanford, Mann had attended Yale University, where she took a writing class with William Zinsser, the bestselling author of On Writing Well, for which Mann offered what appears to be a characteristically dry recollection in 2009.

"My work as a judge requires that I communicate clearly in my written opinions," she wrote. "I cannot prove a direct connection between my judicial style and an undergraduate journalism course I took many years ago. Nevertheless, Bill Zinsser's class was one of the highlights of my years at Yale, and, as we say in the trade, one may reasonably infer that it had its intended effect.”

Mann's unrevealing demeanor could add one more layer of uncertainty to the redistricting process. Constantine describes feeling as though the anti-trust case had turned in his clients' favor when he saw her react, ever so subtly, to a weak argument offered by the defense.

"This seemed to jar the magistrate, whose facial expression and body language subtly changed right in front of us," he wrote. "The fact that this change was subtle was less significant than that her demeanor changed at all." 

-additional reporting by Azi Paybarah