The former New York Supreme Court judge Paula Omansky ’56, JD ’62—who has served on the Schlesinger Library Council since 2006—has often found herself at the center of media and public attention, including when she presided over a case against Phil Spector, the man behind the Wall of Sound, the recording technique that defined pop music of the 1960s. He shepherded acts such as the Righteous Brothers and Ike and Tina Turner to fame, but not to fortune. In 2000 the Ronettes, who had gained popularity for their recordings of songs including “Be My Baby” and “Baby I Love You,” sued Spector for millions of dollars in unpaid royalties.
Although Omansky maintains that her courtroom was “usually quiet and orderly,” Spector’s was only one in a string of celebrity civil cases that crossed her desk in 16 years on the bench. A fire began in the apartment belonging to the child star Macaulay Culkin’s mother and resulted in four deaths and damaged property. Academy Award nominee Leonardo DiCaprio was involved in an altercation with the actor Roger Wilson at a Manhattan club. Suddenly Omansky’s name was found in People magazine as well as in court documents.
She is known for less star-studded cases as well, several of which made the headlines for significant legal reasons. Omansky presided over the groundbreaking First Amendment case Banamex v. Narco News, which decided that alternative news sources—such as online newspapers and their journalists—are protected by the same rights as traditional ones. And in Brennan v. Metropolitan Opera Association, Inc., Omansky held that legislation against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation extends to cover heterosexuals, though there was insufficient evidence to try this particular case. “That was a toughie!” says Omansky (who adds that she is a fan of the Met and often attends the opera).
If such a résumé is rather unexpected for a woman who came of age in the cultural climate of the 1950s, no one is more surprised than Omansky herself. She made the unusual decision to attend Harvard Law School following her graduation from Radcliffe College in 1956 and a brief stint in the Harvard-Radcliffe program in business administration. One of only 14 women in her HLS class, Omansky had no plans to become a judge when she graduated. But after 15 years in private practice and working for government agencies, she went for a judicial nomination and was elected in only two years—a relatively brief time for a complicated process that Omansky refers to as “an education in itself.”
Since her retirement, in 2004, Omansky has dedicated herself to continuing her education, taking courses at New York University, where she currently focuses on a class about the Hebrew Bible. “I threatened when I left the bench to take up the violin,” she says, “to learn how you can make music with only 4 strings when it takes a piano 88, but I haven’t gotten around to it.”
She is impressed with the progress women have made in many areas, but believes there is still a long way to go. It is no surprise that she remains devoted to the Schlesinger Library, where women’s achievements of the past and present are preserved for the future.