Rosemary S. Pooler, a lifelong champion of consumer rights who broke barriers by becoming the first woman to serve as a state and federal judge in two upstate New York districts, died on Aug. 10 at her home in Syracuse, N.Y. She was 85.
Her death was announced by the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, where she had sat since 1998.
Judge Pooler got her start defending consumers when she was appointed chairwoman and executive director of New York State’s Consumer Protection Board by Gov. Hugh L. Carey in 1975. While in that post, she defied food manufacturers by helping grocery shoppers decode the expiration dates on canned goods and advised car buyers of their rights under the so-called lemon law, which offers legal remedies for people who find themselves with a vehicle that has significant defects.
When she was a civil rights lawyer, Judge Pooler, a committed feminist, represented two fellow members of the National Organization for Women who in 1970 successfully challenged the century-long men-only policy of McSorley’s Old Ale House in Manhattan.
She became the first woman to serve on the United States District Court for the Northern District of New York when President Bill Clinton appointed her in 1994. In 1997, President Clinton nominated her to the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, which hears appeals from the district courts in New York, Connecticut and Vermont.
In 2020, the United States Supreme Court upheld the opinion Judge Pooler had written for a three-judge appeals panel in 2018 that three Muslim men were entitled to seek damages from officers who they said tried to force them to violate their religious beliefs by spying on other Muslims.
The men had sued under a federal law protecting religious liberty, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993, and the legal question was whether that law allowed suits for money against government officials.
In a 2003 case, she joined a colleague on the appeals court in questioning the government’s position that the president could indefinitely detain an American who was arrested in the United States as an “enemy combatant” and deny him contact with his lawyer. An appellate panel concurred, 2 to 1.
“As terrible as 9/11 was,” Judge Pooler said, “it didn’t repeal the Constitution.”
By the time she was appointed by President Clinton, Judge Pooler had already blazed a trail on the State Supreme Court, New York’s trial-level court of general jurisdiction.
In 1990, after two unsuccessful campaigns as a Democratic nominee for Congress, she became the first woman elected to the State Supreme Court for the Fifth Judicial District, which is based in Syracuse and covers Onondaga, Oneida, Lewis, Herkimer, Jefferson and Oswego Counties.
Judge Pooler was born Rosemary Shankman on June 21, 1938, in Brooklyn to Bertie (Rothbaum) Shankman, a homemaker, and Nathan Shankman, who owned a dry goods store.
After graduating from James Madison High School in Brooklyn, she earned a Bachelor of Arts degree from Brooklyn College in 1959 and a master’s from the University of Connecticut in 1961, both in history. She received a degree from the University of Michigan Law School in 1965.
She and her husband, William Pooler, whom she married in 1959, moved to Syracuse, where he taught sociology at Syracuse University and she practiced law.
She is survived by her son, Michael Pooler; her daughter, Penelope Pooler Eisenbies; two grandchildren; and her partner, Jerry Blackman. Mr. Pooler died in 2017.
After law school, she practiced law from 1966 to 1972 and then became director of the Consumer Affairs Unit of the Syracuse corporation counsel’s office. She became famous locally for cooking hamburgers on the steps of City Hall to demonstrate their fat content.
She was elected to the city’s Common Council in 1974, named to the New York State Consumer Protection Board in 1975 and appointed to the state Public Service Commission in 1978.
She remained active to the end; on the day of her death, she had just returned from court and participated in a book-club session on Zoom.
“If ever there were a happy warrior, RSP” — as she was known to her colleagues — “was the one,” Richard C. Wesley, a senior judge of the Appeals Court, said in a statement. “RSP loved the exchange of views, and while she was not shy in expressing her take on a case, she was a master of the art of principled compromise.”