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Judge to City: "Is That Your Final Answer?"

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Trying cases on behalf of a mayor with a sensitive, litigious disposition means that you have to try your luck in court more often than Patricia Duff. And no one gets more tired of that, it seems, than the judges who have to deal with the city's suit-happy suits. Case in point: Last week's appeal by city lawyers in the Brooklyn Museum case, which in no time was transformed into the strangest game show imaginable -- an alternate universe where unlucky wannabe winners tangled with an atypically testy Regis Philbin.

Leonard Koerner, the chief assistant corporation counsel, made for a joyless contestant, trying to explain exactly why Rudy Giuliani tried to pull museum funds after last fall's "Sensation" exhibition. "What I want to know is," barked federal judge Jon O. Newman, in the Regis role, "is it really the city's position that the Brooklyn Museum should take all of its artifacts and move out of the building now?" After some tentative hedging over his final answer, Koerner said yes.

"And you believe there is a reasonable chance that a state-court judge would consider that?" Newman snapped.

Sadly, federal court doesn't have lifelines. "I have no idea what a judge would do," said Koerner quietly.

"What do you want them to do?" Newman asked.

With no phone friend to consult, Koerner shot for the million alone. "We want to terminate the lease and maybe negotiate with a new group," he replied -- one that would have exhibits "appropriate for schoolchildren."

"Is every book in the New York Public Library appropriate for schoolchildren?" asked Newman.

"No."

"Are they next?"

The courtroom filled with laughter. Later, museum attorney Floyd Abrams offered a powerful final answer of his own: "The eviction proceeding was a sham they never thought they'd win." Any time now, the appeals court should hand down its own final answer -- the only one that matters.


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