Brooklyn’s true servant of justice: James Blain’s decades of service and mentorship journey

June 26, 2023 Rob Abruzzese
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From the bustling streets of Port-au-Prince, Haiti to the grand halls of the Kings County Clerk’s Office in Brooklyn, the journey of Deputy County Clerk James Blain is nothing short of inspiring. Blain, born in Haiti in 1963, migrated to the diverse neighborhood of Crown Heights, Brooklyn with his family in 1971 at the tender age of seven. This cultural transition was a shock for the young boy, but it played a pivotal role in shaping his future and his pursuit of a career in the court system.

Raised in a Panamanian neighborhood, Blain attended the Holy Spirit/Saint Theresa Catholic School before heading to Chelsea Vocational High School. Upon graduating, he earned his Bachelor of Arts in Economics from Brooklyn College. Despite this academic background, he found himself drawn to a profession centered more around people than numbers.

Blain’s journey to the courts started in an unlikely place – a personal injury law firm where he worked as a runner. An incident where he was unfairly criticized for not being able to file a judgment due to procedural issues is what sparked an interest in public service. Blain knew that he would serve the public differently if he ever found himself in a similar position and it is what triggered his pursuit of a career within the court system.

In fact, it was Blain’s ability to help people that got him into the court system in the first place, although he started in White Plains before he found his way to Brooklyn.

“I went for the interview and it so happened that they asked me if I knew computers, I said yes, I know how to work them,” said Blain, who commuted four hours a day to White Plains. “They asked me if I could fix this computer, and I plugged it in. They asked me when I could start.”

James Blain (left) and Craig Schatzman (right) pictured together, embodying their inseparable partnership. Where one goes, the other follows – a camaraderie built on mutual respect and shared vision for public service. Eagle photo by Mario Belluomo.

Entering the New York State Unified Court System as a temporary Assistant Court Analyst, his dedication, skill, and keen understanding of the system saw him quickly climb the ranks. In 1998, he became the Administrator in the Kings County Clerk’s Office, and in 2017, he made history by becoming the first Haitian-born Deputy County Clerk.

One figure who played an instrumental role in Blain’s journey was his mentor, Louis Fiorillo. Fiorillo, who saw the passion Blain had for dealing with the public, taught him valuable lessons that guided his career path. “He taught me everything I know now. Listen to the people,” recalls Blain. His ability to empathize and listen, molded by Fiorillo’s mentorship, has been key to his success.

“Lou was my mentor,” Blain said. “He took my aside early on and told me that he’s willing to teach if I’m willing to learn. Lou hired me to be his administrator to do the budget, to be the supervisor, but he realized that I had a passion for dealing with the public.”

His passion for public service caught the attention of his colleagues and the wider community. In 2008, Blain received the prestigious Nathan R. Sobel Award from the Brooklyn Bar Association. Eleven years later, in 2019, the Association awarded him the Diversity Award for his efforts in promoting diversity within the court system. In 2022, he was honored during Caribbean American Heritage Month by the Kings County Courts.

Blain explained that it has been important for him to mentor others that came behind him, which is part of the reason why he and Craig Schatzman have been inseparable over the years.

An impactful trio: James Blain (left), Craig Schatzman, and County Clerk Nancy Sunshine (center), united in their commitment to the Kings County Clerk’s Office. Eagle photo by Robert Abruzzese.

“Nancy (Sunshine) came on board and made me the deputy county clerk and now Craig is following in my footsteps,” Blain said. “I see myself in Lou’s position, and Craig wants to help. He went to law school. I have someone now that can take the mantle, and continue what we do in the Clerk’s Office. I’ve had my 33 years and it’s time to go.”

Blain’s service to his community won’t end with his retirement. He plans to stay in Brooklyn and hopes to begin volunteering for the Legal Aid Society.

As he reflects on his career and approaches retirement at the end of the month, Blain shares the wisdom he gathered over 33 years of service.

“I appreciate that everyone wants to be listened to,” Blain said. “People don’t know why they’re here so you have to get the information out of them. They say, ‘they sent me here.’ Who is they? The bank doesn’t know why they’re sending them there, a bank in Rochester doesn’t know how NYC works, how we operate, so people can get frustrated being bounced back and forth so that’s when you learn that people need to be listened to. Maybe you can’t help them, but you can tell them where to go and what to ask.”

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