On Thursday, the Legal Aid Society is set to celebrate its 50-plus years providing services to Queens clients. Attorney-in-Chief Seymour James, who recently announced he was stepping down as head of the organization next year, spent from 1988 to 2005, where he rose to be the attorney-in-charge of the criminal defense practice in the borough. His tenure in the office serving the nation’s most diverse county overlapped with some of the most challenging for the city, and nation. James sat down with the New York Law Journal to discuss his long-view of servicing Queens, as well as the challenges and opportunities facing Legal Aid and the city going forward.
Q: What do you remember from your time as an attorney in Queens?
A: When I first went there, I was astounded by the poor facilities in arraignments. They now have a new facility, but there were no interview booths. People were languishing for days, waiting to be arraigned, because they didn’t have enough room in central book so they would send the arrestees back out to the precincts. It would take forever to get them back.
I remember a case that I worked on when I first went there that highlighted the brutality of the police department. They were arresting people for marijuana sales and trying to get confessions out of them, and were using stun guns. One of our clients spoke to us and we went to the press. Ultimately they did indict those officers. it was horrible.
Q: Were there victories that you recall during those years as well?
A: We had one of the first battered women’s syndrome cases during that time. A woman murdered her husband. She was in fear of serious physical injury and she stabbed him with a kitchen knife. Her mother-in-law actually testified that the deceased person had routinely beaten her. We had an expert testify about the psychological condition of battered women. It was one of the first cases that an expert was allowed to testify at trial in New York.
The first drug treatment courts also came in while I was there, in the mid-to-late 1990s. The very first drug treatment courts in the city were established in Brooklyn. The Office of Court Administration was looking to expand them. I did work collaboratively with the Queens DA office setting up the program in Queens. The administrative law judge out there at the time, Alfred Lerner, was a big proponent of it.
The treatment court became a very effective tool in reducing drug abuse. Judge Leslie Leach sat there for awhile. He dealt very effectively with the clients. That was really wonderful to see some of the clients overcome the demons they had, and how satisfied they were when they went to the graduations. People were really turning their lives around. That was one of the great developments in Queens.
Q: Are there recent accomplishments of the Queens office that come to mind?
A: We were very active in responding to the needs of the community after Hurricane Sandy in 2012. Immediately afterward we were able to get attorneys to work with clients to get FEMA assistance. we’re actually still doing work with some Sandy victims. Recently with the Trump travel ban, we had lawyers at the airport, interviewing people and actually preventing some of them from being sent back.
Q: Queens DA Richard Brown is the longest-serving prosecutor in the city. How do you rate his tenure?
A: I’d have to say I’ve been disappointed. The office still has too many instances when they’re not forthcoming with Brady information. I think there are a number of cases when you look at the appeals, I think they’re being a little overzealous in their prosecution. I think the biggest problem is their discovery. It’s atrocious. They stick to the letter of the law, but, other than Manhattan, they provide the least discovery of anywhere in the city.
Q: Mayor Bill de Blasio was re-elected for a second term earlier this week. Session for Albany lawmakers is coming up soon. What are the biggest issues you’d like to see city and state elected officials tackle?
A: Discovery is a major issue and there needs to be legislative reform. We support a bill that was drafted by the New York State Bar Association. It would enable the defense to receive information at a much earlier time, so they could conduct investigations and provide better information to their clients. But I think it would also speed up the process. Because if, in fact, the person when you have information, and its inculpatory, you can tell the client that they’re likely to get convicted and it would be in their interest to take a plea.
Housing remains a huge issue for our clients. Landlords are trying to force out people who are entitled to rent stabilization. With the increased housing costs of New York City, more and more landlords are trying to get the tenants out so they can raise the rent. There needs to be more affordable housing, as so many of our clients are homeless. And there needs to be supportive housing for the homeless.
We also need to see more police reform. There’s still limited police accountability. The CCRB [Civilian Complaint Review Board] will issue a decision and the police department is now reviewing the CCRB findings, and they’re taking a very long time to review them and in fact overriding a number of them. You had a recent case where the police commissioner overrode an administrative law judge’s determination. That’s not very transparent.
Rikers [ Island] is still a huge problem in the city. The Nunez [ v. City of New York] lawsuit resulted in certain agreements. Unfortunately, the monitor has found that the use of force really hasn’t diminished. There’s probably more head strikes now than there had been before. There remains a culture of abuse among the correction officers at Rikers. And the mayor needs a defined plan about how to close Rikers. There was a commission that made a recommendation that it should be closed in 10 years. The mayor said he ultimately agreed with that, but now he needs to come up with a plan for actually closing it.
Q: What are the big issues that you see your successor at the head of Legal Aid dealing with?
A: Internally, I think we have to look at our staffing. As we’ve increased in size, our administrative staff has to be able to provide the support for the organization. We have a very small management information systems staff. I think that’s something that needs to be looked at. As you get increased programs and increased contracts, there’s increased reporting. You need staff to compile those reports and submit them in a timely fashion. The person will have to look at that.
The person will probably need to establish some caseload standards in the civil context, now that there is going to be universal access in the city. Before the civil practice could say, ‘We can’t take anymore cases,’ but now that it’s mandated then we need to look at what the standards should be so we can make sure there’s adequate funding to meet that standards.
The new RFP with the city establishes civil action attorneys, and also increases the social work-investigator ratio, though I don’t believe that’s adequate. I think we need to monitor that and demonstrate that actually needs to be changed. So many of our clients live in poor living conditions and they’re going to be returning to those same poor conditions when the case is over. What we’d like to do is get them to services that will perhaps change their lives some so that they’re less likely to return.
In terms of investigators, every person, no matter what they’re charged with, is entitled to a full defense. At the current levels, it’s not possible to investigate every case. We really should have more investigators.
Q: You’ve announced your departure next year. Do you know what your plans are after yet?
A: No, not yet. I’ll have more time. I’ve been here for over 43 years. Certainly since 2005, when I was head of the criminal practice, and the last three years since I’ve been head of the organization, have been really intensive. It’s a 24/7 position. I think I’d like something that’d be a little less demanding. I’ll be 70; I’d like to slow down a little bit. I think I still have much to offer, so I’m trying to figure out what that is.