Seymour James Jr. is so soft-spoken that leaders of the New York State Bar Association decided last year that he would need an enhanced sound system to make himself heard while presiding over a noisy House of Delegates, one of his responsibilities as the organization’s president-elect.
But James’ admirers say that the veteran criminal defense attorney will have no trouble making himself understood as president of the 77,000-member bar group, a position he assumes today.
“I go back with him 15 or 20 years where things are being debated,” said Vincent Doyle III, of Connors & Vilardo, the outgoing state bar leader. “It is the type of thing where he is soft-spoken literally, but he is very persuasive and when people stop their yammering and listen to what he says, he almost always carries the day on the positions he is advocating.”
Jonathan Gradess, head of the New York State Defenders Association, said he and James began practicing law the same year, 1974, when James joined the Legal Aid Society, where he now is the attorney-in-charge of the organization’s 600-lawyer criminal practice, with about 225,000 clients annually.
“To me that speaks volumes about what kind of person he is,” said Gradess, on whose board James sits. “That is a very long time to be in the trenches. He is a very quiet, very laid back, very polite person. He is not a rabble rouser. You know, still waters run deep and I think that is true of him. When Seymour speaks, people listen.”
For his part, James acknowledges that he does not fit the stereotype of a brash, boisterous attorney.
“I like to listen to what people are saying,” he said in an interview. “I hate to shoot from the hip.”
James, 63, is only the second attorney from the not-for-profit bar to become president of the state bar. The first, Archibald Murray, was the long-time executive director of the New York City Legal Aid Society, who headed the state bar in 1993 and 1994. Murray became a mentor to James.
James said he will focus on issues of importance to the defense bar during his one-year term.
He plans to appoint a task force to explore ways to expand discovery rules in criminal trials to level what he said is the unequal playing field between prosecutors and defendants.
James said 33 other states have broader discovery rules than New York, which he claimed often leaves defendants in the dark about what evidence will be used against them by the prosecution until the last minute.
James contended that some defendants plead guilty to crimes they did not commit because of New York’s discovery rules.
The Legal Aid Society three years ago issued sweeping proposals for overhauling the state’s criminal discovery process (NYLJ, April 15, 2009). However, some prosecutors expressed concern that liberalized discovery could hamper investigations and jeopardize the well-being of victims and witnesses.
He said the state bar task force should take that report into consideration but would be free to make up its own mind.
James conceded in the interview that expanding discovery would attract opposition from some district attorneys.
“I think that this is an important fight to have,” he said. “I believe that prosecutors are starting to come around. I don’t think that prosecutors want innocent people to be convicted.”
He said he will establish a new special committee to study the problems encountered by people released from prison, including illegal job discrimination and access to housing, education, heath care and drug treatment programs.
Another special committee will address what the state bar calls an “alarming” increase in human trafficking—”modern-day slavery”—by exploring how to assist adults and children forced into hard labor or prostitution.
Although he believes that there are criminal defense issues that deserve attention, James pledged he would “absolutely” be a president for all bar members and not just for defense attorneys.
He said the organization should also take the lead in trying to improve voter participation in New York: 44.6 percent of registered voters went to the polls in 2010. A committee will examine possible reforms such as automatic voter registration, streamlining the registration process, cut-off dates for advance registration, early voting, no-fault absentee balloting and increasing penalties for illegal election practices.
Finally, James said he would to continue ongoing bar programs as efforts to reduce wrongful convictions, to increase funding for civil legal assistance to the poor and to enhance diversity in the state bar.
James is the third black to serve as president of the state bar. The others were Murray and Kenneth Standard (2004-05) of Epstein Becker & Green in Manhattan.
James said that it is “still significant” that a minority group members will head the state bar.
“I wish I could say that times have moved on to the point where it doesn’t matter,” he said. “But while I do believe we have made great strides in the organization and the country and in society, there is still a lack of diversity in many aspects of society and even a need to improve the diversity within the organization.”
Steven Banks, the attorney-in-chief of the New York City Legal Aid Society, said James has an “impeccable reputation for fairness and even-handedness.”
“He has a deep commitment to New Yorkers who are the most vulnerable and most in need of justice,” Banks said.
A native New Yorker, James graduated from Brown University and Boston University School of Law. Before attending law school, he took a year off to work as a math teacher and counselor in a city jobs training program for the poor.
While in law school, he interned at the New York City Board of Correction and listened to prisoners’ stories. That summer, he helped prepared a paper called “A Day in Court Is a Day in the Pens.”
“I took out of that that many were not receiving the quality of representation they were entitled to and I wanted to be able to make a difference by giving them the best possible representation. As I have assumed more responsibility, I have aimed to extend that to a wider range of clients.”
James lives in Brooklyn with his wife Cheryl Chambers (See Profile), a state Supreme Court justice who has been sitting on the Appellate Division, Second Department, since 2008. Chambers reportedly has been designated by screening committee as a “very qualified” candidate for the post of the department’s presiding justice (NYLJ, May 25).
“She is a very smart woman,” James said of his wife, whom he met while both were attending Boston University.
“We are very down-to-earth people,” Chambers said.
The couple has three grown children: Cheryl, an attorney; Carole, a law student; and Christopher, who plans to attend business school.
David Schraver, a partner in Nixon Peabody’s Rochester office, becomes president-elect of the state bar and will take over as the group’s next president in June 2013.
@|Joel Stashenko can be contacted at email@example.com.