Bentley Kassal (born February 28, 1917) an attorney, is a litigation counsel with Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom in New York City. He is a retired New York State Assemblyman, a retired judge of the New York State Courts, at every level, and a World War II veteran. As an early rugby football player, he was a member of the 1940 Harvard Rugby Football team which was the undefeated champion of the Eastern Rugby League. Kassal is married to Barbara Joan Wax Kassal, a retired business executive from Bonwit Teller in New York City.
Born in the Harlem area of Manhattan, New York City on February 28, 1917 to Pauline Nirenberg Kassal and Hyman Kassal, born in Poland and Austria, respectively. Kassal graduated from Public School 86 in the Bronx (1930), Townsend Harris High School in Manhattan (1933), University of Pennsylvania, B.A.
(1937) and Harvard Law School, J.D. (1940) where he received a merit scholarship for his third year. He was admitted to the New York State Bar in September 1940 and was an associate in two mid-sized law firms until Pearl Harbor, December 7, 1941.
Kassal was a member of the Townsend Harris High School soccer, track and baseball teams. At the University of Pennsylvania, he was on the 150 lb. football team as a quarterback/line backer until he fractured his left elbow. In 1940, his third year at Harvard Law School, he played rugby football as the left wing on Harvard’s undefeated Eastern League championship team and scored three tries. The following year, 1941, he played the same position on the New York Rugby Club. After World War II, he resumed playing tennis, golf and skiing until 1998 when he had a double knee replacement. His original 1940 Harvard Rugby Jersey is on permanent exhibit at the Harvard Club of New York City together with his French Legion of Honor Medal Certificate and his photograph with his wife Barbara at Normandy with President and Michele Obama.
Armed Forces Experience
Kassal enlisted in the Army Air Forces in January 1942 by volunteering one month after Pearl Harbor and after six months at Mitchel Field, Long Island, he was assigned to the Officer Candidates School in Miami Beach, Florida, where he met the actor Clark Gable, who was in the squadron directly next to his. One of his memorable experiences there was on anti-submarine patrol on the beach at night to guard against German submarines landing spies. He graduated with honors and was assigned to Air Combat Intelligence School in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, again graduating with honors. Given his choice of world-wide air intelligence assignments, Kassal, as a second lieutenant, opted for North Africa. After three months in an officer replacement center in Algeria, he was chosen by General George Patton’s intelligence officer at the Seventh Army to plan and participate in the D-Day landings at Gela, Sicily, which he did on the U.S.S. Orizaba, as part of the Second Armored Division’s initial landing force. Two months later, he was chosen to plan and land on D-Day with the Fifth Army at Salerno, Italy on an LST and he personally briefed General Mark Clark on the Salerno beach. After the capture of Naples, he again planned air intelligence missions and, especially with President Roosevelt’s approval, the air bombardment of the Montecassino Abbey, occupied by critical German artillery units which for some period had blocked the infantry’s passage to Rome. At Cassino, he was assigned to brief General “Hap” Arnold on the military situation at Montecassino.
Receiving Bronze Star from General Gorden P. Saville, Nancy France December 1944After the almost completed conquest of Italy, Kassal returned from north of Rome to Naples for the D-Day invasion by the Seventh Army at St. Tropez, France on August 15, 1944. He personally briefed General Patch. Shortly thereafter, he took 17 German soldiers prisoner at Salon-En-Provence. Although a prisoner, the German Commander of the prisoners arrogantly declared that Hitler and Germany would nevertheless win the war to which Kassal responded “Did you ever think you would be taken prisoner by a Jew?” The
troops in Southern France moved swiftly to the north and through Alsace-Lorraine where they were caught in the midst of the Battle of the Bulge and General Patton’s counter-attack. Thereafter, Kassal’s unit quickly moved through Bavaria and was at Augsburg when D-Day was declared. However, because of his extraordinary intelligence knowledge of the Luftwaffe, he was assigned to London to prepare for the invasion of Japan since it was anticipated that German pilots would be part of the Japanese air defense.
He was awarded the Bronze Star Medal, three Bronze Arrowheads for three D-Day invasion landings and Seven Campaign ribbons in the European Theatre. He was in the Army Air Forces for 4 years and served overseas for 30 months in North Africa, Sicily, Italy, France and Germany. On June 5, 2009, he received the French Legion of Honor Medal from the French Defense Minister Herve Morin at Les Invalides in Paris with a ceremony at Colleville-Sur-Mer (Omaha Beach) Normandy.
Political Career, Law and the Judiciary
Kassal immediately after the war, became very active in liberal causes on the upper West Side of Manhattan, like the Americans for Democratic Action, the American Veterans Committee, the Draft Eisenhower Movement (for the Democratic nomination) and the Volunteers for Stevenson. He also joined the local anti-Tammany Democratic Club and ran and lost in a contested primary for the State Assembly (1950). Later, in 1956, he was elected as the first Reform Democrat Assemblyman in the N.Y. State legislature. In 1962, he was in a contested primary against the incumbent Congressman and was unsuccessful. He resumed his law practice as a single practitioner and, in 1969, he was successful in another contested Democratic primary for the Civil Court.
As an Assemblyman, Kassal was regarded as one of the most liberal legislators. He is most proud of two achievements: (1) As his assembly district included the Lincoln Center of the Arts, he introduced and had enacted into law the first Arts Council in the United States (which he modeled after the Council for the Encouragement of the Arts that he first became aware of in England during World War II); (2) He was the only legislator to vote against the annual re-enactment of the Security Risk Law, mandating that all state employees execute loyalty oaths during the Cold War. As a result, the bill was never re-introduced.
Except for his 4 year period of military service, as a single practitioner, his specialties were civil litigation, real estate, estates and matrimonials. His sole criminal matter was representing Lenny Bruce, the famous comedian, on his arraignment on obscenity charges at Cafe Au Gogo in Greenwich Village. During almost this entire period, he was a regular guest commentator on radio night talk shows, first with Barry Gray on WMCA and then with Long John Nebel on WOR.
Serving in the Civil Court of the City of New York for 6 years (1970–1976), he was the judge assigned to establish the Housing Court and he also introduced the Small Claims Court into the State of Israel. Thereafter, he served in the N.Y. Supreme Court for six years and was appointed by Governor Hugh Carey to the Appellate Division of the Supreme Court, First Department in 1987 where he served for 12 years. During this period, he was appointed by Chief Judge Sol Wachtler to serve for the April/May 1985 term at the New York Court of Appeals, the State’s highest court. Additionally, he acted as a Special Judge to try judges for ethical violations and recommended significant sanctions, including removal, for several judges.
He has a total of 259 reported decisions. In the appeal on the America’s Cup Race trial decision, he wrote a dissent in favor of the New Zealand team based primarily on sportsmanship, fair play and equity in that, although not violative of any specific rules, holding that the use by the United States of a catamaran was contrary to the spirit of the race since no catamaran had ever been raced previously and, critically, no catamaran had ever lost to a single-hulled sailboat.
- In Morgan v. Morgan, on the basis of equity, fairness and justice, he ruled in favor of providing maintenance to the wife who had supported her husband while he completed his legal education and became an attorney. She had sought similar support while a pre-medical and medical student. Although reversed on appeal, shortly thereafter the Equitable Distribution Law was enacted providing for this form of relief. (Subsequently, she became a doctor and a photo article with Kassal was published in the New York Times).
- In People v. Shelton, his decision, the first to interpret the statutory language “Extreme Emotional Disturbance” in a jury charge as mitigation on a murder charge, was affirmed by the Court of Appeals.
- In Gordon v. American Museum of Natural History, his opinion at the Appellate Division, requiring actual or constructive notice of a physical condition as a condition for negligence liability, was affirmed by the Court of Appeals.
- In 1976, as a Civil Court Judge, he decided, in Parkwood v. Marcano, that a landlord has a duty to mitigate damages upon a tenant’s default, similar to all contract damages. This was reversed on appeal.
On April 22, 2003, he acted as amicus for Brennan Center for Justice (NYU) in filing a brief at the New York Court of Appeals supporting stringent ethical rules for Judges.
Since 1998, he has been a counsel in the litigation department at Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom LLP. He is an arbitrator and mediator, advises attorneys on arguments and appeals, reviews and revises briefs and memoranda, prepares and circulates memoranda on current litigation topics, engages in moot court arguments, delivers an annual C.L.E. talk on “Effective Appellate and Trial Advocacy” and is the annual reporter since 2004 for the New York State Bar Association Journal on the subject of appellate statistics, most recently entitled “Did the Appellate Odds Change in 2008” with the article for 2009.
He is currently in his third five year term on the Advisory Committee on Judicial Ethics (Office of Court Administration)Committee on Character and Fitness (Appellate Division, First Department) Mayor’s Committee on City Marshals, Special Master, Pre-Argument Conferences (Appellate Division, First Department), Lecturer on Active Post-Judicial Legal Retirement (Supreme Court Justices and NY State Bar Association) Annual Article, N.Y.S.B.A. Journal on Appellate Statistics, published every year since 2002.
Continuing to the present, he has undertaken 81 photographic missions throughout the world and covering 158 countries. The New York State Bar Association Journal featured an article about an exhibition of Kassal’s photographs. On April 12, 2010, he took photographs at the Statesville, North Carolina Synagogue for the Jewish Heritage Research Center (Syracuse University).
Among the charitable groups he has taken photographs for 17 charities, including Save the Children, World Monuments Fund, Human Rights Watch, the Asia Society, UNICEF, the International Survey of Jewish Monuments, the Coalition for Soviet Jewry, United Jewish Appeal and others. His photos have appeared on numerous occasions in the media and his photo for Save the Children remained on its poster for more than ten years. He has also exhibited at the City Bar Association and several court houses. As recently as June 2009 in Southern France, at the age of 92, he took photos of three synagogues at Nice, Carpentras and Cavallion in France and three synagogues in North and South Carolina. He has had a special photo exhibit at the Save the Children headquarters, “Beyond the Bench.”