Hide Profile

Justine Wise Polier, judge and authority on juvenile justice, was the daughter of Stephen Samuel and Louise (Waterman) Wise. Both parents were strong influences on their daughter: Stephen Wise was an inspirational reform rabbi, founder of the U.S. Free Synagogue, a leader of the U.S. Zionist movement, and active in social and labor reform; Louise Wise, social worker and painter, was the founder of Louise Wise Services, a social service agency.

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.

From the guide to the Papers, 1892-1990, (Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute)

Archival Resources
Role Title Holding Repository
creatorOf Papers, 1892-1990 Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America‏
Role Title Holding Repository
Relation Name
associatedWith Abram, Morris B. person
associatedWith Advisory Council for Children with Handicapping Conditions corporateBody
associatedWith Alvarez, Luis W., 1911- person
correspondedWith American Academy of Pediatrics corporateBody
associatedWith American Bar Association corporateBody
associatedWith American Civil Liberties Union corporateBody
associatedWith American Jewish Congress corporateBody
associatedWith American Jewish Congress. Women's Division corporateBody
correspondedWith American Psychiatric Association corporateBody
correspondedWith Ann F. Ginger person
associatedWith Antioch School of Law corporateBody
associatedWith Bazelon, David L. person
associatedWith Bellamy, Carol person
correspondedWith Bell, Winifred person
associatedWith Bernard, Viola W., 1907- person
associatedWith Borah, William Edgar, 1865-1940 person
associatedWith Brandeis, Susan person
correspondedWith Brown, James person
associatedWith Carey, Hugh L. person
associatedWith Children's Center corporateBody
associatedWith Children's Defense Fund (U.S.) corporateBody
associatedWith Coles, Robert person
associatedWith Committee for Children corporateBody
correspondedWith Cullman, Howard person
associatedWith Durr, Virginia Foster person
associatedWith Edelman, Marian Wright person
associatedWith Eleanor Roosevelt Institute (New York, N.Y.) corporateBody
associatedWith Eleanor Roosevelt Memorial Fund corporateBody
associatedWith Encounter House corporateBody
associatedWith Fair Employment Practice Committee corporateBody
associatedWith Federation of Jewish Philanthropies of New York corporateBody
associatedWith Field Foundation (New York, N.Y.) corporateBody
associatedWith Franklin Delano Roosevelt Library corporateBody
associatedWith Freud, Anna, 1895- person
associatedWith Harvard Law School corporateBody
associatedWith Hedgeman, Anna Arnold, 1899- person
associatedWith Highlander Folk School (Monteagle, Tenn.) corporateBody
associatedWith Hill, John Warren person
associatedWith Human Resources Review Board corporateBody
associatedWith IJA-ABA Joint Commission on Juvenile Justice Standards corporateBody
associatedWith Impellitteri, Vincent person
correspondedWith Jack Gonzales person
associatedWith Javits, Jacob K., (Jacob Koppel), 1904-1986 person
associatedWith Johnson, Hugh S. (Hugh Samuel), 1882-1942 person
associatedWith Johnson, Lady Bird, 1912- person
associatedWith Joint Commission on Mental Health of Children corporateBody
associatedWith Kellogg, Paul Underwood, 1879-1958 person
correspondedWith Kelly, Florence person
associatedWith Kennedy, Edward Moore, 1932- person
correspondedWith Knitzer, Jane person
associatedWith LaFollette, Robert M., 1855-1925 person
associatedWith LaGuardia, Fiorello H. (Fiorello Henry), 1882-1947 person
associatedWith Lash, Trude W. person
associatedWith Legal Rights Advisory Committee corporateBody
associatedWith Louise Wise Services (New York, N. Y.) person
associatedWith Manhattan Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children corporateBody
associatedWith Manhattan Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (New York, N.Y.) corporateBody
correspondedWith Miklos Farkashazy person
correspondedWith Moreland Commission corporateBody
associatedWith Murray, Pauli, 1910-1985 person
associatedWith Nathan, Otto, 1893- person
associatedWith National Center for Juvenile Justice corporateBody
associatedWith National Center for State Courts corporateBody
correspondedWith National Council of Juvenile Court Judges and State Chapters corporateBody
associatedWith National Council on Crime and Delinquency corporateBody
associatedWith National Institute of Mental Health corporateBody
associatedWith New School for Social Research corporateBody
associatedWith New York City Commission for the Foster Care of Children corporateBody
associatedWith New York Civil Liberties Union corporateBody
associatedWith New York (State). Family Court (City of New York) corporateBody
associatedWith New York Training School for Boys corporateBody
associatedWith Non-Sectarian Foundation for Refugee Children corporateBody
associatedWith Northside Center for Child Development corporateBody
associatedWith Office of Civilian Defense corporateBody
correspondedWith Passaic Textile Mills corporateBody
correspondedWith Pisani, Joseph person
associatedWith Polier, Justine Wise, 1903-1987 person
associatedWith President's Commission on Mental Health corporateBody
associatedWith Reich, Charles A. person
associatedWith Research Center for Human Relations corporateBody
associatedWith Ritter, Bruce, 1927- person
associatedWith Roosevelt, Anna, 1906-1975 person
associatedWith Roosevelt, Eleanor, 1884-1962 person
associatedWith Sachar, Abram Leon, 1899- person
correspondedWith Schack, Betty person
associatedWith Schlesinger, Arthur Meier, 1917- person
associatedWith Shad Polier person
correspondedWith Sicher, Dudley person
correspondedWith Society for the Prevention of Crime corporateBody
associatedWith Testimonies person
associatedWith Thomas F. Soapes person
associatedWith Thomas Hoving person
associatedWith Trade-unions person
associatedWith Twentieth Century Fund corporateBody
associatedWith Union for Democratic Action corporateBody
associatedWith Union of Democratic Action corporateBody
associatedWith United States. Office of Civilian Defense person
correspondedWith Urofsky, Melvin I. person
associatedWith Vorenberg, James person
associatedWith Welfare and Health Council corporateBody
associatedWith White, Walter Francis person
associatedWith Wickenden, Elizabeth, 1909- person
associatedWith Wiltwyck School for Boys (Esopus, N. Y.) person
associatedWith Wise, Louise Waterman, 1901-1947 person
associatedWith Wise, Stephen Samuel, 1874-1949 person
Place Name Admin Code Country
United States. Congress. Special Committee on Un-American Activities
New York (N.Y.)
United States. Children's Bureau


Birth 1903

Death 1987

Related Descriptions

Permalink: http://n2t.net/ark:/99166/w6f903zr

Ark ID: w6f903zr

SNAC ID: 71126686