When dozens of Occupy Wall Street protesters charged with blocking traffic went to court, they faced a judge with experience handling prominent cases that grow out of political demonstrations.
In fact, Manhattan Criminal Court Judge Neil Ross even had some experience with some of the demonstrators themselves.
During a dozen years on the bench, Ross has handled his share of celebrity and other high-profile cases, as have many Manhattan judges. But one of his most closely watched moves was his 2006 decision to acquit 18 members of an activist group called the Granny Peace Brigade of disorderly conduct charges stemming from an anti-Iraq War protest.
The trial featured impassioned defendants as old as 91 _ some carrying canes _ airing their views on war, activism and free expression before a judge decades younger than many of them.
The women were arrested after going to the Times Square military recruiting station in October 2005, saying they wanted to enlist to spare the lives of younger soldiers. Prosecutors said the demonstrators sat and blocked the entrance and rebuffed police orders to leave. The women and a police officer said they didn't obstruct foot traffic or keep anyone from going into the station.
Ross agreed, but he made it clear he'd kept his focus on the legal questions at hand, not larger issues.
"This case is not a referendum on future actions at the location in question, on police tactics, nor the age of the defendants or the content of their message," he said.
On Thursday, Ross' docket was crowded with nearly 80 cases from an Occupy Wall Street march on Sept. 24. Participants were accused of blocking traffic, which many deny.
For Ross, there were some familiar faces in the crowd. One of the first people called before him was Ann Shirazi, 66, one of the Granny Peace Brigade members he'd acquitted.
Ross noted that she and some of the other Occupy defendants had gone to trial before him on another "arguably unrelated _ but perhaps, on some level, related _ case."
But he added that he felt he could "fairly sit on the case and all the cases of defendants who have previously appeared before me."
Shirazi said later she was surprised to find herself before the same judge, adding that she felt he'd handled the Granny Peace Brigade case fairly.
She and more than 50 others turned down prosecutors' offers to get their cases dismissed by avoiding getting rearrested for six months. Ross released them without bail and set Jan. 9 court dates for them, likely before a different judge.
Nine accepted the offer. One, a journalist for a public television website who was at the march for work and wearing a press credential, had his case dismissed immediately. Fourteen didn't come to court; Ross issued arrest warrants but stayed them _ for now _ and set Jan. 9 court dates for them.
Ross, a former Brooklyn and federal prosecutor who earned his law degree from Syracuse University, was appointed to the criminal court bench in 1999 by then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani. In New York, criminal court is where most defendants are initially arraigned and misdemeanor and some violation cases are heard.
His docket has included rappers Tony Yayo, who was accused of slapping a music-industry rival's 14-year-old son in 2008, and Busta Rhymes, when he was charged with beating a man in a 2006 dispute over money. Yayo ultimately pleaded guilty to harassment and was sentenced to 10 days of community service. Rhymes eventually pleaded guilty to assault and driving offenses related to that incident and three others; another judge sentenced him to three years' probation.
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