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J. Machelle Sweeting, Law Clerk Kings County


Behind the Judge’s Bench and the Anna Nicole Smith Case with J. Machelle Sweeting

If variety is the spice of life, then J. Machelle Sweeting should be bottled and placed in every attorney’s kitchen. Since graduating from law school, she has held careers in the New York City Law Department, the Brooklyn District Attorney’s Office and she now serves as the Law Clerk to a Supreme Court Justice in Kings County, Criminal Term. Here, she shares how her commitment to public service made it possible for a law clerk in New York City to work on the Anna Nicole Smith case in the Bahamas.

What does a typical day look like for you?

The first duty of the day is to make sure that the judge is aware of all of the cases that are on for the day. I brief the judge on the underlying facts and all of the outstanding issues in the cases. The day also begins with monitoring the calendar. I conference with the attorneys, usually the night before, to make sure that they have properly identified all of the outstanding legal issues and to make them aware of issues they may have overlooked. Sometimes, this involves bringing to the court’s attention, recent changes in the law that may impact the outcome of cases. I do this to make sure that all pre-trial issues are fully cases before the case proceeds to trial. If a decision needs to be rendered on a case, I draft all of the necessary decisions.

What attracted you to becoming a law clerk?

It’s probably one of the areas that allows me to use all of the skills I have developed having practiced civil litigation on both a federal and state level; having worked as a criminal trial attorney in the DA’s Office and as an administrator. This position is a culmination of all of my skills. The primary work of a court attorney is that you really are the advisor to the judge on the law. There are legal issues that may arise that the judge may not have looked at and it is my job to make sure that those issues are addressed. I am the liaison between the court and the litigants. Having worked on high profile cases in various areas within the legal system, I have developed an ability to interact with all types of people, whether they are pro se litigants or seasoned attorneys. In the Corporation Counsel’s office, I was the opposing counsel in cases filed on behalf of partners in major law firms, as well as actions involving civil rights organizations such as the Civil Liberties Union. It is this level of expertise that is germane to my current position.

You recently became a member of the Bahamian Bar. Congratulations! What inspired this decision?

My interest in the Bahamas demonstrates that my commitment to equal justice is not limited to local issues but is intertwined with issues on an international level. With increasing travel, there are a number of issues that connect the U.S. with other jurisdictions, especially the West Indies There is a large Caribbean population in the U.S., especially in New York City. The most glaring example of the issues that the U.S. shares with the Caribbean arose in the Anna Nicole Smith case. There were issues that developed in the U.S. and issues that were unique to the Bahamas. I was at an advantage in that I was aware of both sides’ issues. I was the nexus between the U.S. and the Bahamian law. As a member of the Bahamian Bar, I want to unite and catapult those international perspectives in making citizens in the U.S., particularly attorneys, aware of some of these issues.

What steps did you take to become a member of the Bahamian Bar?

I took a hiatus from clerking and did a six month conversion course at the Eugene Dupuch Law School where I was entrenched in local Bahamian and Caribbean law and the law of the West Indies. I was also attached to two law firms, that further developed my background in U.S. and Bahamian laws.

Were you involved in the Anna Nicole case?

Yes. While on hiatus in the Bahamas I worked for Lockhart & Munroe, the law firm that represented Anna Nicole Smith and her estate. During my time in the Bahamas, I was integral in developing links between U.S. law, the controlling jurisdictional issues, the validity of U.S. orders and their implications and enforceability in the Bahamas, which has totally different laws. For instance, there were orders issued in the U.S. where DNA testing is very common. However, there are provisions under the laws of the Bahamas that indicate that you can not forcibly compel someone to give bodily evidence, such as DNA. My involvement was to research and determine what impact, if any, a U.S. order would have on a person who is domiciled in the Bahamas. I assisted in the legal analysis of issues such as these.

What impact do you think that you will have as a member of the New York and Bahamian Bar?

I hope to build a bridge that will foster the relationship between the two legal communities. While in the Bahamas, I conducted a seminar on U.S. law and the procedure for being admitted to the New York Bar, so that Bahamians interested in living, working or practicing law abroad, especially in N.Y., could get exposure to the opportunities that may be available to them in the U.S. A number of the attorneys I met expressed an interest in practicing in the U.S. but did not know how to move forward. Whether I am in the U.S. or the Bahamas, I have made myself readily available to people interested in pursuing and further developing their legal careers.

Given your devotion to young people and teaching, do you have an interest in academia?

Yes. One of the beauties about obtaining knowledge is sharing it with other people. I am currently an Adjunct Professor at the College of New Rochelle, where I teach New York City Politics and the Criminal Justice System. I also conduct a number of community–based workshops and seminars that inform community residents about their rights, and serve year–round as a mentor to a countless number of students. My motto has always been, “Those who learn must teach.” Give me anyone, regardless of age, who shows me the slightest sparkle of an interest in law, and I will make the time to teach to them.

Interview with Laural Boone conducted by Natalie Holder-Winfield of the Committee on Career Advancement and Managemen