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Twenty-four hours after New York’s Court of Appeals invalidated plea bargaining once a death notice is filed in a capital case, First Deputy Capital Defender Randolph F. Treece dashed into court and attempted to plead his client before the prosecutor had an opportunity to file. Treece, 52, has always been quick on his feet, though not always by choice or nature. As a black lawyer in an insular community, Treece was long an outsider. But that is about to change in a big way. Within the next several weeks, Treece is slated to become U.S. Magistrate Judge for the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of New York. When he assumes the bench later this summer, Treece will be the first black to serve in New York’s Northern District federal judiciary. “Randy was not chosen because of his race,” stressed federal Judge Lawrence E. Kahn, who is on the Northern District Court and played a key role in Treece’s appointment. “It was purely on merit. But it is certainly a wonderful dividend that he is an African-American simply because the fact is there has never been an African-American judge in the Northern District since it was created with the first appointment by George Washington in 1789.” Keenly aware of the historic significance of his appointment, Treece feels that his ascension to the bench is something that he has been preparing for his entire life. Cerebral, soft-spoken and introspective, Treece, now counsel to New York State Comptroller H. Carl McCall, seems genuinely humbled by his appointment. Treece grew up in Troy, N.Y., the son of a butler and maid. His father, the late John Treece, had come north from Tennessee after World War II. John Treece, even more fair-skinned than his son, initially found work by masquerading as an Italian. Treece’s mother, Marguerite Smith, put herself through college and graduate school by working two and three jobs at a time, and continues to practice nursing in her 70s. As a student at Troy’s Lansingburgh High School in the mid-1960s, Treece was one of only two black students in his class. He was an honors student, star athlete and popular enough to be elected class president, yet he never once got invited to a party at a white person’s house. “One of the stories that haunts me is going to a dance and not having anyone to dance with,” Treece recalled during an interview in his office in the Alfred E. Smith Building, a state office facility in downtown Albany. “A [white] girl saw me there crying — I just felt ostracized — and came over and slow-danced with me. I’ll never forget that.” After graduating from Lansingburgh with a Regents diploma, Treece enrolled in Siena College, a venerable Franciscan institution in a fashionable Albany suburb, where he majored in accounting. He chose accounting because a high school guidance counselor suggested he had a reasonably good head for numbers, while suggesting that the student would never amount to anything more than a bookkeeper. But Treece’s heart was really in the law where he could be “an independent voice for the downtrodden.” “I know it sounds Pollyanna-ish,” Treece said, “but I would just lie in bed sometimes and see myself on a soapbox railing against what we do to poor people and how we treat them, whether they are black or white. I wanted to be a leader, to be heard, and not be tied to somebody else’s directions.” During the height of the racial tensions of the late 1960s, Treece was the only black student at Siena. He found himself struggling with the race issue, particularly after an economics professor told the freshman that the only black man he ever respected was Muhammad Ali. Other racial incidents also distracted Treece and he was barely making the grade. He fell into a depression, which was, if anything, exacerbated after a standardized test at Siena suggested he should pursue a career as a mortician. CHANCE ENCOUNTER Treece dropped out of Siena and briefly enrolled in Howard University, which he left when his student loans failed to come through. He returned to Siena, as much in a funk as ever, when a chance encounter brought everything into crystal-clear focus. One day, Treece was alone in the gym, shooting baskets. A couple of black men who worked at the college as cooks wandered in and started shooting with him. The told him how wonderful it was that one of their brethren was at Siena, how special it was that he was the only black student and how proud they would be when he graduated. Their words struck home powerfully, and to this day Treece cannot retell the story without losing composure. “These two guys have no idea what they did for me,” Treece said, wiping the tears from his eyes. Fully engaged and determined, Treece graduated from Siena College in 1970 with a degree in accounting. He spent the next three years working with the accounting firm Peat, Marwick Mitchell before enrolling in Albany Law School. The law school, at the time, was hardly diverse. There were no minorities there between 1874, when James Campbell Matthews, the first black person admitted to the New York Bar, graduated, and the 1950s, when Albany attorney Peter M. Pryor received his degree. Pryor remains the dean of Albany’s minority legal community, and for most of career has been among the very few blacks in solo practice in the capital city. Pryor said he never imagined, as a newly admitted attorney in 1954, that he would wait this long to see a black on the bench. “This opens the door and gives inspiration to the African-American community and tells the broader community that we are no longer living in a closed society,” Pryor said. “It is important that we are able to look upon the bar and bench as a social institution which reflects the values of the community. Having Randy as a jurist uplifts many souls in our community and gives us renewed hope and faith. There is no question that he is a person of the temperament and perseverance that will make him a great addition to the bench.” Treece’s law school class included seven minorities, three of whom graduated, and he felt very much welcome even though there were no minority professors. “In law school, I felt like I was treated much, much better,” Treece said. “I really enjoyed law school. I found it tremendously challenging. It was an awakening for me intellectually.” He did well and, after graduating in 1973, was eager to take the Capital District legal world by storm. There were no offers, however, from the larger practices and Treece got a job with an outlying firm that eventually became Fritts, Whiting and Treece. He did some criminal work, operated a professional corporation as part of the partnership, and survived — barely — with the meager income he was bringing in as a part-time assistant public defender in Rensselaer and Albany counties and as an adjunct accounting instructor at a community college. In 1987, he accepted a position with the New York State Attorney General’s Office, which to Treece was an indication that he had failed. Like nearly all the other minority attorneys in the region, Treece was going into government work. “I was starving [in private practice],” he said. “I was barely making $20,000 a year out of my practice. My daughter was getting close to going to college. I thought I was a failure and had to leave the practice. I was not happy.” For the next eight years, Treece served as an assistant attorney general, mainly defending torts and eventually handling some of the Law Department’s most complex cases. But he yearned to return to criminal law, and that opportunity arose with an out-of-the-blue call from Capital Defender Kevin Doyle in late 1995. Doyle was appointed capital defender after New York Gov. George Pataki signed legislation reinstating the death penalty in 1995, and he was looking for a first deputy to run the Albany office. Treece took the job and held it for three and one-half years. FIRST DEPUTY As first deputy, Treece was involved in one of the pivotal early death penalty cases, a matter involving a serial killer named Kendall Francois. After New York’s Court of Appeals in Hynes v. Tomei, 92 NY2d 613 (1998), barred plea bargaining once a death notice is pending, Treece rushed into court the next day and attempted to plead Francois to the first-degree murder indictment. The death notice had not yet been filed, and Treece knew that if he could get a conviction entered before that time, and before a jury trial, he would spare the life of his client. Although the Court of Appeals in May 2000 refused to sanction “an unseemly race to the courthouse between the defense and prosecution” ( Francois v. Dolan and Grady, 95 NY2d 33), Treece got the result he wanted when the district attorney decided not to pursue the death penalty and his client was allowed to plead guilty. “I never tried a death penalty case and I think, quite frankly, it probably would have broke me down,” Treece said. “I can admit that now. I wanted to try one just to say that I had. But anybody who has been in the death penalty camp knows that the last thing you want to do is try a case if you can do something else to save the person’s life. I thought the Kendall Francois case would have been the one I tried, but God came along and gave me a blessing.” That blessing was a call from McCall, and a subsequent offer to serve as counsel to the comptroller. Since February 1999, Treece has run the comptroller’s legal department, which includes about 40 attorneys. McCall acknowledged that at first blush it might seem peculiar to name Treece, whose experience was almost exclusively in criminal defense and tort litigation, to a position requiring expertise in finances and contracts. “He was known to be a very good criminal lawyer and litigator,” McCall said. “What we wanted him to do was quite different. But people told me that he was a guy who was very smart and who could very quickly pick up on the issues my office deals with, and that proved to be true. He turned out to be a very able manager and very quickly learned a whole new body of law.” REALIZING A DREAM The judgeship is the realization of a long-time dream of Treece, as well as his supporters. One of those critical supporters is former Presiding Justice Leonard A. Weiss of New York’s Appellate Division, 3rd Department, a pillar of the New York state legal community who was long bothered by the lack of diversity on his hometown bench. After retiring from the court, Weiss served as Albany County Democratic Committee chairman, and in that capacity tried mightily to secure a state judgeship for Treece. However, the various political variables never quite fell in line, leaving Weiss disappointed and frustrated. Earlier this year, Weiss, now a commissioner with the New York State Public Service Commission and of counsel to the Albany firm McNamee Lochner Titus & Williams, was a member of a 10-person committee charged with recommending candidates to succeed the retiring U.S. Magistrate Judge Ralph W. Smith Jr. Treece, one of five recommended candidates, was the unanimous choice of the district judges. “He is a splendid lawyer with a very extensive and widely varied experience in the practice of law,” said Weiss, who had introduced Treece to the comptroller. “In addition, he is a metaphor for tolerance, for understanding, for achievement and a role model for all minority people. Just look at this kid who pulled himself up by his bootstraps and made something exemplary of himself. All Randy ever wanted was a chance, and I am as pleased and proud of him as I can possibly be.” Throughout his career, both professionally and as a tireless friend to other struggling minority attorneys, Treece has stood out locally precisely because he never asked for anything more than a chance. When some were calling for racial quotas to increase minority representation in Albany law firms, Treece was rejecting that approach. Instead, he asked only that the local bar leaders give minorities fair consideration, an opportunity to sink or swim on their merits. A report to that effect impressed even the old guard of the Capital Region legal community, and won the New York State Bar Association’s prestigious Root Stimson Award for public service. Treece was co-founder and president of the Capital District Black Bar Association, and served as chairman of the Albany County Bar Association’s Minority Subcommittee. He also served at the request of Chief Judge Judith S. Kaye on her Jury Project, which came up with 10 recommendations for getting minorities more involved in the jury process. Nearly all the recommendations were adopted. ‘A STELLAR INDIVIDUAL’ Albany has not seen a black lawyer in robes since the 1890s, when Matthews, the first African-American graduate of Albany Law School, served for four years in the Recorders Court, a predecessor to City Court. Matthews’ seemingly unlikely ascension is often explained by the fact that he was so light-skinned and fair of features that he could, and probably did, pass for a white. Since then, there has not been a single judge of color at any level — Village Court, City Court, County Court, Supreme Court — in the region between Westchester County and the Canadian border, and all the way west to Syracuse. Treece, now that the FBI has concluded its extensive background investigation, will apparently soon break the color barrier for the Northern District of New York federal bench. “It is unfortunate that it took this much time [to get a minority on the bench],” said McCall, who is black. “It is clear that given the fact there has never been a black judge in the district, the person who would be the first had to be someone with outstanding qualifications . … I think that is what happened here. It is just so clear that he was superbly qualified, and that made it possible for him to break the barrier.” Judge Kahn is reluctant to make much of the race issue with regard to Treece, fearing that a focus on his ancestry obscures the objective merit of the appointment. “He is just a stellar individual and he possesses all the wonderful qualities you would want in a judge,” Kahn said. “He has a depth of experience in the law and life itself. He is extremely bright and has wonderful credentials, but I think the most important qualities a judge needs are to be patient, be a good listener, be fair and open-minded — and he has all of those traits. He is just a good person.” When not in court, Treece can often be found on the court — with a basketball or tennis racquet. He has a variety of interests, not the least of which is his daughter Shani, an accountant with the State University of New York Research Foundation, and granddaughter Nzinga. In addition, he is active in a wide range of community organizations and is a jazz aficionado who writes a jazz review, a student of black poets and artists and a contributor for Urban Voices, a local monthly periodical catering to the minority community. Treece said he expects to begin his new job around Sept. 1.

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