Margaret “Peggy” N. Bliss made sure the churches, libraries, historical societies, and hospitals that mattered most to her and her husband the Hon. F. Walter Bliss, class of 1915, in Middleburgh were reflected in their legacy.
After Peggy died in August 2021, Albany Law School became part of that legacy through an estate gift to establish a namesake scholarship in honor of Judge Bliss.
“Considering the Judge’s pride and pleasure in helping many young people with their educations and professional pursuits, this is the kind of legacy he would have wanted to leave,” Peggy Bliss told Albany Law School Magazine in 2009.
Judge Bliss was born in 1892 in Mackey, a hamlet of the Schoharie Valley town of Gilboa. He attended Cornell University and then Albany Law School. He started his own practice after graduation before he enlisted and served a tour in World War I and returned to his practice.
Over the course of his life, Judge Bliss used his Albany Law School education to help many. But defending his hometown against an encroaching New York City and presiding over a trial of an infamous gangster stand out.
The Town of Gilboa vs. New York City
In 1929, he successfully represented the Town of Gilboa, population 1,200, in a landmark lawsuit against New York City. The Gilboa dam and creek was constructed in the 1920s by impounding the Schoharie Creek with the assumption that New York City would pay local property taxes. The massive dam—2,024 feet long, 182 feet high, and more than 150 feet wide at its base — holds roughly 15 percent of New York City’s drinking water. The construction, essentially, forced all of Gilboa to rebuild.
After the city completed the project, it argued that the aqueducts bringing the water from other upstate towns back to the metropolis were tax-free, so why should it pay?
After six years of litigation, a clever move by Bliss and his co-counsel Wallace H. Sidney moved things along. They advertised the dam was for sale due to unpaid taxes, according to a 2004 Focus on History column by Bob Cudmore in the Schenectady Gazette.
In 1929, state Supreme Court Justice Ellis J. Staley ruled that the dam and reservoir were much more substantial than an aqueduct and subject to taxes. Since the ruling, New York City has paid an estimated $88 million to the town of Gilboa.
The Trials of Jack “Legs” Diamond
Following the Gilboa case, in October 1930, Gov. Franklin D. Roosevelt appointed Bliss to the state Supreme Court. In November, he was elected to a 14-year term.
While on the bench, Bliss presided over a trial of Prohibition gangster and bootlegger Jack “Legs” Diamond – a notorious case in Capitol Region history.
A major player in the Manhattan Bootleg Wars with a nickname earned by evading police and his reported smooth dance moves with mistress and showgirl Marion “Kiki” Roberts, Legs was acquitted of New York State bootlegging, kidnapping and assault charges, but eventually convicted on related federal charges and sentenced to four year in August 1931.
The survivor of five shootings in seven years at that point, Legs appealed the conviction that September. The appeal was heard in Troy’s grand Ceremonial Courtroom with Judge Bliss presiding.
While Bliss was dignified, proper, and respectful according to historical records, the jury returned a not guilty verdict in the brief case against Legs after three hours of deliberation.
When the verdict was returned on Dec. 17, 1931, Bliss remarked: “While justice may not have triumphed as yet, I doubt the man will enjoy either freedom or his life much longer.”
Diamond’s last call came the night of the acquittal. Three bullets were fired directly into his small bedroom at his home at 67 Dove Street in Albany in the early morning hours of Dec. 18. His killer or killers were never found.
Albany Times Union: The Unfinished Business of "Legs" Diamond
Following the famed case, in January 1933, Bliss was appointed to the Appellate Division, Third Department making him the youngest to serve on that court at 40. He served on the court until the end of 1944. While on the Appellate Division, he returned to Schoharie County annually to serve a two-week term as a Supreme Court trial justice.
In 1945, Bliss retired from the bench and returned to Schoharie to private practice.
At the State Democratic Party’s 1950 nominating convention in Rochester, Bliss was the unsuccessful candidate of upstate delegates for the party’s gubernatorial nomination.
He continued to practice law and provide counsel for decades, in addition to countless hours of community service which included serving as a trustee of Howe Caverns from 1947-1965; then as president and finally chairman of the board from 1965-1982 according to his historical biography on nycourts.gov.
In 1975, Albany Law School awarded him the Trustees Gold Medal which is highest accolade bestowed by the school and given to an individual who has demonstrated a record of exemplary support and dedication to the advancement of Albany Law School.
He died in 1982 at age 90.
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