Miriam Cedarbaum, a federal judge in Manhattan who presided over the trial that sent the domesticity expert Martha Stewart to prison for lying to the government about her sale of stock in a friend’s company, died on Friday at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital/Weill Cornell Medical Center in Manhattan. She was 86. Her son Daniel confirmed her death.
Judge Cedarbaum, who was appointed to her position by President Ronald Reagan in 1986, handled thousands of cases in a quarter-century on the federal bench, from a terrorist’s attempt to explode a car bomb in Times Square to a battle over ownership of works created by the dancer and choreographer Martha Graham. It was the 2004 trial of Ms. Stewart, however, that brought the judge her widest public attention.
Judge Cedarbaum’s sentencing of Ms. Stewart, the chief executive of a billion-dollar empire of publishing, television and merchandising businesses, to five months in prison plus five months of home confinement spurred a public debate over whether the punishment was too lenient or too harsh.
Ms. Stewart was convicted of lying to federal investigators about why she had sold nearly 4,000 shares in a biotechnology company the day before the company announced in 2001 that the government had rejected its application for approval of a promising cancer drug. Ms. Stewart reaped $227,000 from the sale; after the announcement, the share price of the company, ImClone Systems, plummeted.
The investigators were looking into sales of stock by Ms. Stewart and others shortly before the announcement to determine whether the transactions had resulted from insider information. Ms. Stewart was not charged with insider trading but with obstructing justice by lying about the stock sale. Prosecutors said she had tried to cover up that she sold the stock because she had learned that the head of the company and his family were dumping their shares.
Ms. Stewart faced between 10 and 16 months of incarceration under federal sentencing guidelines. In giving her five months in prison and five in home confinement, Judge Cedarbaum said, “I believe that you have suffered, and will continue to suffer, enough.”
In an unscientific poll by the cable television channel CNNfn, 46 percent of more than 50,000 respondents deemed the sentence too lenient, 29 percent too harsh and 25 percent just right. Judge Cedarbaum did not comment publicly on the reaction to the sentence. But in a speech years earlier, she had indicated that she valued both temperateness and the element of deterrence in delivering her sentences.
In the speech, given in 1992 to the New York County Lawyers’ Association, she said she believed that “a good judge should recognize as to all litigants, but especially as to criminal defendants, that there but for the grace of God go I.”
Still, in 1995, in sentencing a former police sergeant for stealing money from prisoners and lying about arrests, she imposed the maximum term under sentencing guidelines, 33 months, saying, “While I don’t doubt your genuine remorse, the functions of criminal punishment are not only to deter a particular criminal but to discourage others who see what he has done from following in his path.”
Judge Cedarbaum presided in 2010 when Faisal Shahzad, a 30-year-old Pakistani immigrant living in Connecticut, pleaded guilty to driving a bomb-laden car into Times Square. It failed to explode. Before Judge Cedarbaum imposed a mandatory life sentence, she gave him a lesson about Islamic history.
Addressing the court, Mr. Shahzad had called his action justified because of American military campaigns in Muslim countries, and he likened Osama bin Laden to Saladin, the 12th-century Muslim hero who led the fight against the Crusaders. At that point, the judge interrupted him.
“How much do you know about Saladin?” she asked, and continued: “He didn’t want to kill people. He was a very moderate man.”
(In fact, while Saladin’s legacy includes merciful treatment of defeated Christians, Christian captives were also executed on his orders.)
Judge Cedarbaum also ruled in a multiyear clash regarding ownership of 70 dances created by Ms. Graham. The dispute arose after Ms. Graham died, in 1991, pitting Ron Protas, who had been the general director of her dance company and the heir to her estate, against the Martha Graham Center of Contemporary Dance, which she had also established.
Judge Cedarbaum ruled in 2002 that Mr. Protas owned the copyright to only one of the dances, that the center owned the copyrights to 45, and that neither party had established ownership of 24 of them.
She was born Miriam Goldman on Sept. 16, 1929, in Brooklyn. Her parents, Louis and Sarah Goldman, were public schoolteachers. She was a graduate of Erasmus Hall High School, Barnard College and, in 1953, Columbia Law School. After working as a law clerk to a federal judge in Manhattan, she became an assistant United States attorney in Manhattan and a Justice Department lawyer in Washington.
Judge Cedarbaum was an associate counsel for the Museum of Modern Art in New York for 14 years, from 1965 to 1979; for the next seven years, she worked for the law firm Davis, Polk & Wardwell in Manhattan. She also served as the part-time village justice in Scarsdale, N.Y.
She married Bernard Cedarbaum, a lawyer, in 1957. He died in 2006. She lived in Manhattan.
In addition to her son Daniel, Judge Cedarbaum’s survivors include another son, Jonathan; her companion, Robert Ehrenbard, and four grandchildren.