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The Civil Rights History Project: Survey of Collections and Repositories

Polier, Justine Wise. Papers

Repository: Harvard University. Radcliffe Institute. Schlesinger Library

Collection Description (Extant): Correspondence, reports, oral histories, photographs, etc., of Justine Polier Wise, judge and authority on juvenile justice . . . .

JWP was born on April 12, 1903, in Portland, Oregon, where her father was rabbi, and grew up in New York City. She attended Bryn Mawr (1920-1922) and Radcliffe (1922-1923), and received her A.B. from Barnard (1924). She worked in a textile mill in Passaic, N.J., to experience factory life first-hand, took part in a union drive and strike, and left the mill when she was blacklisted by her employer. She studied briefly at the International Labor Office in Geneva (1924-1925) and visited and wrote about the Soviet Union. She then entered Yale Law School, was editor of the Yale Law Review, and received her LL.B in 1928. She married (1927) one of her professors, Leon Tulin; they had one son, Stephen Wise Tulin. After her husband's death in 1932, she married (ca.1936) Shad Polier; they had two children: Trudy (Polier) Festinger and Jonathan Wise Polier.

In an oral history interview, JWP recalled that she had attended Yale not because she wanted to practice law, but because she was interested in social and labor legislation. At the urging of Franklin Roosevelt, Frances Perkins hired her as Referee (1929-1934), and then Assistant Corporation Counsel (1934-1935) in the Workmen's Compensation Division of the New York State Department of Labor. Her study of workmen's compensation led to changes in the law enabling workers to choose their own physicians, thereby eliminating mismanagement and misuse of funds. In 1935 she was appointed counsel to the New York City Emergency Relief Bureau and to Mayor LaGuardia's Committee on Unemployment Relief. Insisting that public assistance was completely inadequate for the one million unemployed workers in the city, she clashed with General Hugh Johnson, the relief 'czar.' Later that year she was appointed judge in the New York State Family Court (then the Domestic Relations Court) of the City of New York, the first woman in the state to hold a judicial office higher than that of magistrate.

The court, which was new when JWP joined it, embodied the progressive ideal of paternalistic intervention by the State in what was considered the best interests of children. JWP's tenure on the bench (1935-1973) was consistently inspired by an activist judicial philosophy in which she perceived the court as the best vehicle to assure the welfare of neglected and dependent children. She saw gaps and discrimination in child welfare services and sought to secure nonsectarian and nonsegregated shelters for neglected children, humane detention centers for delinquents, adequate foster homes, youth camps, and expanded psychiatric and clinical services. She pioneered the 'treatment method' of juvenile justice, seeing the court not as a means of punishment or part of criminal proceedings, but as an arm of the social services whose goal was to understand, assess, and diagnose the causes of anti-social behavior, and to prescribe remedies. Community organizations alone, she thought, could not be entrusted with this role. In the 1960s and 1970s, JWP's philosophy increasingly fell out of favor with liberals who distrusted authority, were suspicious of paternalism, and focused, according to JWP, more on the rights and less on the needs of children. She believed that critics too often castigated the limited effectiveness of the juvenile courts and the life of barren alienation in juvenile institutions, when they should have concentrated on the deteriorating social and economic conditions, inadequate public education, and poor health services.
While on the court, JWP served on the Committee on Institutions, a standing committee of the Family Court, which investigated New York City's facilities for children, especially those belonging to the Manhattan Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. She was also a staunch and early champion of the civil rights of Blacks. Finding few facilities that would admit delinquent Black Protestant youths, she helped found Wiltwyck School for Boys, a nonsectarian, interracial training school, and served on its board (1942-1981). In the Skipwith attendance case (1958-1961), JWP found that de facto segregation existed in schools in Harlem and castigated the Board of Education for practicing educational discrimination. She was also one of the initiators of a class action suit (Wilder v. Sugarman, 1971-1978) against all private and public foster care agencies in New York City on the grounds that their policies resulted in a child welfare system that discriminated against Black children. Observers in her court commented on her sensitivity, and her concentration on the needs of the child. She lived up to her claim that justice should not be blindfolded, but observant and quick to respond.

In 1973 JWP retired from the Family Court to devote herself to writing and to reform of juvenile justice on a national scale. As director of the Juvenile Justice Division of the Children's Defense Fund (CDF), 1973-1976, she traveled throughout the U.S., speaking, investigating, and giving expert testimony. Her office sponsored major studies: the detention of children in adult jails, the transfer of children from juvenile to adult courts (waivers), and the practice of banishment of children out of state beyond the reach of family members. At her initiative, CDF served as amicus curiae in such lawsuits as Roe v. Norton (1973-1975), concerning misallocation of AFDC funds.

JWP's voluntary activities were closely interconnected with her professional interests. She served on the Joint Commission of the Institute of Judicial Administration and the American Bar Association, which set national standards in the field of juvenile justice, as well as the New York State Committee on Children and the Advisory Review Board on Human Resources for New York City. She chaired the State Committee on Mental Health Services and was president of Louise Wise Services that offered comprehensive services to unmarried mothers. She was president of the American Jewish Congress - Women's Division, on the board of the Field Foundation and the Eleanor Roosevelt Institute, and member of many other city and state committees. As an associate and friend of Eleanor Roosevelt (ER), she worked with her on the Citizens' Committee for Children and the board of Wiltwyck School. JWP was one of a group who tried with ER's advice, but unsuccessfully, to bring 10,000 German Jewish children to the U.S. ER invited her to join the Office of Civilian Defense, where she served as a volunteer for three months, 1942-1943.

JWP was a prolific writer in the field of juvenile justice, publishing several books: Everybody's Child, Nobody's Child, 1943, Back to What Woodshed, 1956, A View From the Bench, 1964, and Juvenile Justice in Double Jeopardy (posthumous, 1989), and many articles, reports, and speeches. She also wrote and spoke on labor, and race issues, and Israel and the Middle East.

JWP died on July 31, 1987.

Date(s): 1892-1990

Digital Status: No

Extent: 48 file boxes, 1 1/2 file box, 1 folio folder, 1 folio+ folder

Finding Aid URL: External Link

Language: English

Interviewees: Justine Polier Wise

Rights (CRHP): Contact the repository which holds the collection for information on rights


African American children--Civil rights
African Americans--Relations with Jews
Civil rights--Religious aspects--Judaism
Juvenile justice, Administration of
Race discrimination--New York (State)
Roosevelt, Eleanor, 1884-1962
Roosevelt, Franklin D. (Franklin Delano), 1882-1945
Women--Political activity




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