Randall Eng, the presiding justice for the Appellate Division, Second Department, who is retiring from the bench at the end of the year, is a man of firsts.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo put Eng in charge of the Second Department—which covers a sprawling, 10-county swath of New York and is considered one of the busiest courts in the country—in 2012, making him the first Asian-American to head up one of the state’s four appellate division departments. He first joined the appellate court in 2008.
Last month, he served by designation on the Court of Appeals alongside Justice Peter Tom, Eng’s counterpart in the Appellate Division, First Department, which is believed to be the first time that two Asian-Americans sat on the state’s highest court.
In 1983, Eng became a Criminal Court judge in New York City, becoming the first Asian-American to take the bench at any level, he said. Before that, he was the first Asian-American to work as a prosecutor for the Queens District Attorney’s Office.
“When I started my legal career, there were only a handful of Asian-American lawyers practicing in New York City,” he said. “They were essentially a small group of Chinese-American lawyers practicing in Manhattan Chinatown, doing real estate, immigration, small transactions.”
But in the decades since, the presence of Asian-Americans has grown in all sectors of the legal community: Now they’re working as partners at big-time Manhattan firms and presiding over federal courtrooms.
Born in China, Eng grew up in New York City and obtained his J.D. from St. John’s University School of Law. From 1970 to 2004, Eng also served in the New York Army National Guard, retiring as a colonel.
Next month, Eng turns 70, the mandatory retirement age for presiding justices. As for where he’s going next, Eng declined to give too many details.
“Probably something in the private sector,” Eng said, leaving it at that.
Eng reflected on his long career and how New York City and the court system have evolved during that time in an interview with the New York Law Journal in his chambers at the Second Department courthouse in Brooklyn Heights.
The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What could members of other groups who have been underrepresented in law learn from your experience?
They can learn that success is obtainable through the skills that have always been valued: strong work ethic, strong scholarship, the ability to be collegial, the ability to communicate, the recognition of the need to mentor others from their same groups. Also, the importance of seeking and doing well in leadership and management positions.
I believe that is the next barrier to be overcome among Asian-Pacific American (APA) lawyers and judge: attaining leadership positions. There has been too much of a stereotype of Asian lawyers being excellent workers, but not leaders and managers. They are slowly gaining access to senior leadership positions, senior in governmental entities and that I encourage them to do, because they need to leave their mark there as well.
It’s partly cultural, perhaps, that among APA individuals that they don’t want to be confrontational nor be out front, so to speak. But it is necessary in order to be successful in law to be out front. I’ve been fortunate enough to have leadership positions in everything I’ve done in my legal career.
How has the Appellate Division, Second Department, and the communities it serves changed during your time on the bench?
The most obvious change is in the demographics of the bench. When I came onto our court, there were 18 men and four women. Now we’re a female majority (12 of the 22 justices in the Second Department are women).
For the first time, on my watch, we have an African-American female member of the “constitutional” bench. It took 100 years for that to happen (the constitutional bench consists of seven justices while the remaining 15 are deemed “additional” justices. Justice Cheryl Chambers is the first African-American woman named to the constitutional bench in the Second Department.)
The changes in the demographics of the Second Department: You have more and more visible minorities now. The Second Department is certainly less rural. We’ve become urban-suburban—now the rural aspect is largely gone.
We cover half of the population of the state of New York. That’s always been a very heavy responsibility.
Also in that time, have there been any changes to the types of cases that typically come before the court?
In my tenure, the number of criminal cases has dropped because of the reduction in the crime rate. There was a time when nearly half the calendar consisted of criminal case.
Now we have a trend in which criminal cases are rising again, I think as defendants find more and more areas to appeal in.
Our family law filings are rising as well. I think it’s the instability now—that’s my perception. The instability now in family life. More and more people are divorcing, you have greater needs for child support. You have greater sensitivity now to child abuse and neglect issues, which is good.
Other than its sprawling nature, what sets the Second Department apart from New York’s three other appellate division departments?
The multiplicity of courts we hear cases from. We have county courts, we have surrogates. We have a range of courts that you wouldn’t normally see elsewhere and that is unusual.
[We try to] reconcile, particularly in the criminal area, some of the potential disparities you may have in sentencing. The same crime, the same person, you have people with similar backgrounds who get sentences that are not at all in harmony. That isn’t the last word there—of course we have to respect community views but when we have enormously disparate sentencing from one county to another, we have to look at that. The view is not equalize it, but it shouldn’t be enormously disparate either.