Zachary Carter, the incoming New York City corporation counsel, said he is ready to take over a Law Department already running at full speed on a number of major issues facing New York City.
“Absolutely,” Carter said in an interview Monday. “I’ve always loved public service and this is an opportunity to play an important role in the administration of the city and be helpful to our new mayor in supporting his policies with sound legal advice.”
Carter, 63, was named to the position by Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio Sunday at a news conference, where Carter said both he and the mayor “believe that prosperity and access to opportunity should be broadly shared, and that we have failed as a society when we do not meet the needs of the least advantaged among us.”
De Blasio also spoke of an activist corporation counsel who will help him realize his policies on affordable housing mandates and expanding paid sick leave.
De Blasio addressed two highly contentious cases involving the Law Department. “We will drop the appeal on the stop-and-frisk case because we think the judge was right about the reforms that we need to make,” he said. “We will settle the Central Park Five case, because a huge injustice was done.”
Carter declined to discuss the specifics of any cases in which the Law Department is involved.
Michael Cardozo, the outgoing corporation counsel, said he and Carter met at the Law Department Monday. “We had a very constructive meeting with Zach earlier today where he met with a number of my top level people for a few hours,” Cardozo said in an interview.
Cardozo, who will finish packing and say goodbye to his “wonderful staff” today after 12 years in office, also had a message of optimism for Carter. “I told him that I think this is one of the finest, if not the finest, public law offices in the country and I was confident he would continue to take all the appropriate steps to keep it that way,” Cardozo said.
In a prior statement, Cardozo said he had known Carter for years and could “attest to his legal intellect, talent as a litigator and his dedication to the rule of law.”
Cardozo, who worked with Carter in his role as chair of the Mayor’s Committee on the Judiciary, said Carter “endorses the idea of merit selection for judges, not political gamesmanship, and he will continue to uphold these important tenets as corp. counsel.”
Carter said he comes to the Law Department with a perspective on New York City from several different positions. He has been a state criminal court judge, Eastern District U.S. Attorney—the first black in that position, a federal magistrate judge, and in private practice, a partner with Dorsey & Whitney. Carter said his varied experience will be an asset.
“The sheer breadth of the issues that the corporation counsel has to address and advise on makes it a demanding job,” he said. “I think I have the advantage of being a neutral, being a judge for several years in both the state and federal systems. I have the opportunity to draw on everything I’ve done.”
Carter said the job is unlike any other because he is not only providing counsel to the mayor, but also representing every city agency.
“Philosophically, I do think that lawyers who represent the government have a unique responsibility because we represent the city’s interests, particularly in litigation against the city, where we are defending the interests of not just the city but all its citizens, and also in affirmative litigation that we bring on behalf of the city and its citizens,” he said.
“At the same time, people who are on the opposing side are often citizens or city businesses, so there is a special responsibility, in my view, that any time you are trying to protect the city’s interests, you are mindful of an obligation to try and obtain a fair and just outcome,” he said.
During the six years he held the post of U.S. Attorney, Carter oversaw high-profile prosecutions, including those of the police officers convicted of abusing Abner Louima in 1997. Carter was also involved in the prosecutions of former Genovese crime family boss Vincent Gigante and those responsible for the death of Yankel Rosenbaum during the 1991 Crown Heights riots.
In addition to a change in approach to the stop-and-frisk litigation and the Central Park case, there are other potential policy changes on the way, as Carter may also preside over a shift in the city’s position on Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s taxi reforms, some of which have been criticized by de Blasio.
In other areas, such the restrictions on the sale of large, sugary drinks and the construction of a waste transfer station on the East River at 91st Street, the position of the Law Department is not expected to change. A de Blasio spokesperson has said that the new mayor will evaluate all outstanding lawsuits on a case-by-case basis.
Carter said he looks forward to managing an office with 730 attorneys and 604 support staff. “The Law Department has many veteran lawyers who have carried on a long tradition of professionalism through many mayors, performing widely disparate functions and representing every single agency in New York City while providing the legal architecture to support the mayor’s policy initiatives,” he said.
Peter Zimroth of Arnold & Porter served as corporation counsel under Mayor Edward Koch. Zimroth was appointed by Southern District Judge Shira Scheindlin as monitor of the New York City Police Department to oversee the reforms of stop-and-frisk policies, a position that was put on hold by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit.
Zimroth taught Carter at New York University School of Law. “He was a fabulous law student. He exhibited exactly the qualities that he exhibited throughout his whole career,” Zimroth said. “First of all, he’s very smart and he’s an extremely able lawyer, but my impression at the time, which has been confirmed throughout his whole career, is he has a passionate commitment to do justice.”
Zimroth called corporation counsel “one of the great legal jobs in America,” and a tough one, because the Law Department, with 730 attorneys and 602 staff, is “a very big, sprawling, complex entity.” He said Carter is “absolutely correct” that the job requires “a commitment to justice and to the City of New York.”
“The first thing you have to do is love being a lawyer—everyone of his predecessors has gone into the job really loving the idea of being a lawyer for the City of New York,” he said. “There are really such wonderful people in that office who spent very large parts of their careers in service to the city. You have around you people who are not only expert in what they do but also share that commitment to the city. One of the important attributes that Zach has is the ability to listen to people, and there are a lot of good people to listen to.”
Steven Banks, attorney-in-chief of the Legal Aid Society said Carter “comes to the office with a proven track record of addressing injustice and for the kinds of problems that we need the corporation counsel to address.”
He added there was a “long overdue need”—going back three decades—for the city to analyze cases and legal issues “through a lens of justice rather than whether the city can prevail.”
“I have known Zach Carter for three decades and consider him to be a consummate professional who is dedicated to the highest principles and nobility of the legal profession,” said New York Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman in a statement. “The mayor-elect has made a superb choice.”
In an interview, Kenneth Thompson, incoming Brooklyn District Attorney, who worked under Carter as an Eastern District prosecutor, said his former boss was “eminently qualified to serve as corporation counsel.”
“It was an honor to work for Zach Carter in the Eastern District. He, I believed, was fair to all prosecutors working under him and he always sought to do the right thing in all cases,” Thompson added.
Carter was also a member of Thompson’s own transition team.
In a statement, Ken Cutler, Dorsey & Whitney’s managing partner called Carter “a preeminent lawyer, a dedicated public servant and a wonderful human being. His years of experience as a prosecutor, judge, U.S. Attorney and in private practice at Dorsey make him exceptionally qualified for the wide range of responsibilities entailed in representing the largest city in the United States. I know that Zach will bring incredible energy, insight and compassion to the job of furthering and defending the legal rights of the people of New York City.”
Robert G.M. Keating, vice chair of the mayor’s committee on the judiciary said Carter was “a brilliant lawyer” who brought “a lot of intellectual firepower and diligence” to the position, along with an “energetic sense of right and wrong, and integrity.”
Keating, vice president of strategic initiatives at Pace University and a previous state administrative judge and criminal justice coordinator for the city, noted that one of the functions of the Law Department is to serve as the presentment agency prosecuting juvenile justice matters. Carter’s work on the mayor’s committee helping to select Family Court judges would be “tremendously helpful” in that regard, Keating said.
He added that Carter is “particularly sensitive to people that the court system protects or should protect. He sees the court system as being one that proactively protects the citizens who have difficulty protecting themselves.”
Carter will take over an office in which Cardozo served for 12 years, the longest tenure for anyone in the job.
“He [Cardozo] is an excellent lawyer and a great steward of the Law Department and I think he has given his all as corporation counsel and deserves great credit and recognition,” Carter said.
As for changes in the office itself and city policies, Carter declined to comment.
“We’ve made extraordinary progress in some areas and in other areas, we still need work,” he said.
Andrew Keshner contributed to this article.