Pro Bono Barrister for Aug. 6

August 6, 2012 By Charles F. Otey, Esq Brooklyn Daily Eagle
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State bar President James has active criminal court ‘discovery’ agenda

When Seymour James was named to head  the New York State Bar, the response of most  lawyers went something like this “Seymour a great guy and a heck of a defense attorney. He’ll do an excellent job.”

This typical good wish was inevitably followed by a remark such as “Isn’ t he married to [Appellate Division] Justice Cheryl Chambers?”

That’s what happens when a guy is the spouse of to a popular and respected woman jurist these days, but President James has established his own turf within the 77,000-member organization and beyond. And, as we all know, running any group of lawyers can be as challenging as herding cats on the best of days.

News for those who live, work and play in Brooklyn and beyond

He brings a lot of solid experience to the position. He started practicing law back in 1974 with the Legal Aid Society and ultimately became its attorney-in-charge. Legal Aid’s 600 lawyers represent over 220,000 clients annually.

Members of the Kings County American Inn of Court have met him often socially because Justice Chambers is a Master of the Nathan Sobel Inn. They regularly attend the Inn’s year-end and holiday galas.

Justice Chambers doesn’t merely serve as an Inn Master she has gained very positive “notices” for her performances in the illustrative skits featured at each Inn session.  (Some barristers there still talk of her star turn as the mild-mannered “Judge Manley” presiding with grace and wit over a very comic courtroom a few years back.)

President James has let it be known early that he will use his position to highlight the procedural criminal court inequities that give prosecutors a decided advantage in critical discovery stages of many cases. He’s stepping into a ready-made controversy, but all who know him quickly point out that his calm demeanor covers a singular dedication to the rule of law and the fairness it should provide all who seek its protection.                               

Giving defense attorneys more liberal discovery options is not a concept cherished by prosecutors. But the incoming president is reportedly setting up a task force to explore the possibility of introducing a “sweeping new set of rules for overhauling the state’s criminal discovery process” according to one web site.

President James voiced optimism in an interview published at, saying, “I think that this is an important fight to have. I believe that prosecutors are starting to come around. I don’t think prosecutors want innocent people to be convicted.”

Pres. James sees ‘alarming increase in human trafficking’

Another problem he wants the State Bar to tackle is the “alarming rise” in “human trafficking’ which is on the rise here and throughout the world. President James calls the escalation of exploiting adults and children “into hard labor or prostitution” is nothing less than “modern-day slavery.”

He is setting up a special committee to highlight the societal ills resulting from the virtual imprisonment of estimated tens of thousands of people of all ages in the United States.

The future NYSBA president met the woman destined to be his wife (and Appellate Division justice) when both were attending Boston University Law School. They have three grown children who should all know that their parents bring a lot of class, character and, most definitely in the case of “Judge Manley,” a superb sense of humor to the profession.

The Kings Inn is led this coming year by President Marc Dittenhoefer. Modeled after the ancient Inns of court they were and remain institutions of learning and courtroom training of barristers.

Justice Ellen Spodek is Inn president-elect, Dave Chidekel serves as counselor, Justice Arthur Schack is treasurer and the newest officer is Judge Miriam Cryrulnik, secretary.

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Council members beaten by bicyclists’ powerful ‘lobby’

Most lawyers agree that anyone injured on a city sidewalk or street by a speeding bicyclist has very little chance of bringing a successful personal injury action. Most of these tort feasors flee the scene, many are “independent contractors” with no insurance or have such limited “coverage” that a lawsuit is not an option no matter the seriousness of the victim’s injury.

Each day, anyone who stands a few moments at the corner of Court and Montague streets can see pedestrians running for their life and limb to escape the onslaughts of errant bikers, sometimes, unsuccessfully.

Lawmakers have tried to get bikes licensed and insured. In fact, at one point the City Council in response to complaints from injured and frightened pedestrians held hearings and focused their ire on Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik Khan, lampooned in some quarters as the “Queen Of The Bike Lane Empire.”

A little over a year ago, the City Council and the State Assembly were considering bills to launch greater legal controls on bikers. They targeted Commissioner Sadik Khan as did a number of newspaper editorial writers.

What a difference this year has brought!

Employing very effective lobbying tactics bolstered by vocal bike lane enthusiasts, Transportation Alternatives the group which has galvanized New York City’s most zealous bikers has whipped the City Council and the State Assembly so badly that comparatively little of any note is now being done to protect pedestrians or to ensure their “day in court” when struck down by a speeding bike.

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Is TA as powerful as NRA? Good question

It’s hard to imagine the lobbying strength of this group, whose numbers are officially only in the thousands. “T.A.” has no money to speak of especially when compared with the National Rifle Association. Yet the transit group instills a fear in local lawmakers which is almost on the same level that the National Rifle Association occupies as it torments various representatives and senators in Washington and in many state capitols.

Granted the NRA’s efforts result in too many automatic weapons flowing indiscriminately into the hands of people who pretend to be Second Amendment defenders, but get a perverse pleasure out of wielding their Glocks and AK-47s that pose a clear and present danger to police forces across the nation.

But in New York City the bicycle lobby is energized not only by T.A. members but by thousands of other bikers, some of whom make deliveries, others who just love to speed down streets and sidewalks with impunity.

Back in 2010, a New York Times article noted, various council members publicly and persistently excoriated Sadik Khan over the proliferation of bike lanes. They have since changed their tune.

A few months back, for instance, many of the formerly outraged municipal lawmakers bent over backward to thank Sadik Khan for all she had done for their districts, praising her for her work on highway construction and bike lane repair.

Reflecting the power of the Transportation Alternative lobby, and perhaps the charm of the comely transit boss, the council members including Lew Fidler, James Vacca and Peter Koo beat a steady retreat from their indignant stand of a few years back.

“In this society, the ‘squeaky wheel gets the grease,’” a bike lane proponent wrote us recently. “The fact that T.A. is so effective that it has been able to get these lawmakers to change their views is a reflection of democracy in action!”

The reader is right. I think I’ll rejoin Transportation Alternatives which, after all, used to be a leading member of the Gowanus Expressway Tunnel Coalition, a group which fought valiantly if vainly to force that dilapidated, money-draining Robert Moses monstrosity to go underground and return hundreds of acres of land surface to the tax-paying public.

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Din won’t stop until Romney releases relevant tax returns

When GOP presidential aspirant Mitt Romney stirred a hornet’s nest in London by criticizing the 2012 Olympics which are the current pride of the British nation he continued to demonstrate that he simply isn’t ready for prime-time politics, foreign or domestic.

When President George W. Bush made a gaffe mispronouncing “nooocler” or mis-locating various foreign nations, he always did it with a certain affable good nature. In fact, we’ve come to realize that the worst thing about the Bush administration was Dick Cheney.

But Romney has a certain aloof nastiness to his tone clearly detectable  when he emphasized eliminating ‘OBAMAcare” to the NAACP Convention. (He then dared and puzzled the audience by ordering them to “Look at me! Look at me!”)       

Experienced trial lawyers even those who register as Republicans know Romney is hiding something when he refuses to release tax returns which might show he was still involved with his Bain investment firm until 2002 even though he claimed to have severed ties in 1999 to manage the Olympics in Utah.

Any lawyer worth her salt knows that when a party declines to release records saying “I’ve complied with all the requisite rules and regulations and the pertinent laws” that something is hidden and they want to keep it hidden at any cost. Romney says he doesn’t want the “Democrat” party  “picking through” his records.

Maybe the architect of Obamacare has a half billion or so dollars in some foreign off-shore account in the Cayman Islands or in far-off Switzerland. Showing such a lack of faith in American banks by concealing part of his fortune in foreign tax havens would certainly hurt him, but it wouldn’t be fatal to his candidacy.


Was he still serving Bain during his Olympic stint?

If, on the other hand, his tax accounts show that he was indeed receiving income and “expensing” Bain for 2000, 2001 and 2002 it would put the lie to his claims that he wasn’t in charge when Bain stripped a number of companies of their assets and sent thousands of American jobs to India, China and beyond.

Until Romney started to run and pander to some declaring he is a “severe conservative,” there were many Democrats who felt that President Obama simply didn’t have the proper formula to cure our sick economy. Since Romney entered the public arena giving almost all of his one-on-one interviews to Fox News he has alternately been aloof, indifferent, mean, rash and living in a different world insulated by severe wealth from most of the American people.

Lawyers we talk with especially Republicans who know ‘tort reform’ will be a President Romney’s “first day to-do list” have been steadily opposed to him. They know too well he will use Justice Antonin Scalia as his role model. They know that just two Romney Supreme Court appointments would eviscerate the possibilities of a “day in court” for most Americans.

For years, big business has been trying to eliminate trial lawyers by eliminating the contingent fee arrangement in personal injury cases because they know that most seriously injured plaintiffs would never be able to pay a lawyer otherwise.

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PRO BONO BARRISTER is a weekly column dedicated to telling about the good that lawyers do. Send your comments or suggestions to this writer care of this newspaper or to [email protected].

Notice: Readers seeking legal representation on a Pro Bono Publico basis should not contact this columnist.  Rather, they should seek out the Brooklyn Bar Association Volunteer Lawyers Project at 718 -624-3894.

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