Blogs

Thank You, City Bar Members – by Debra L. Raskin

As I look back on my term as City Bar President, I marvel at the dedication, energy, and vision of our members. From meetings with foreign dignitaries about international policy to meetings with low-income New York residents about housing and immigration issues, the breadth and quality of the work we do here is staggering.

Over the past year we issued 170 reports, presented over 150 live CLE programs, and hosted over 250 non-CLE events. Our 160 committees—comprised of almost 5,000 members—held over 1,000 meetings here at which they networked, brainstormed, hosted guest speakers, and came up with ideas for reports, programs, and amicus briefs.

Here are just a few of the many projects and accomplishments from this year:

The City Bar has been active in the area of criminal justice reform. We issued a report, “Mass Incarceration: Seizing the Moment for Reform,” in which we urged federal and state leaders “to make the reduction of mass incarceration a top priority” and take specific actions to address this crisis. In conjunction with the report, the City Bar announced the formation of a Mass Incarceration Task Force to guide and support the City Bar’s advocacy efforts. We have also signed on to a new state clemency initiative from Governor Cuomo’s office.

Led by our Policy Department, the City Bar’s output of reports and related advocacy work over the past year saw successes on a number of fronts. A series of state bills we supported were enacted to improve and protect the rights of women in areas including employment, reproductive health, and economic security as part of the Women’s Equality Act. The State also passed a comprehensive paid family leave insurance program. And a bill concerning the exercise of personal jurisdiction over corporations registered to do business in New York, opposed by several of our committees as likely unconstitutional, failed to advance in Albany.

Our Task Force on the New York State Constitutional Convention will continue its work considering the upcoming November 2017 ballot question of whether New York should call a convention to revise its State Constitution.

And last month, led by the Council on Judicial Administration and following our call for the Legislature to fund next year’s Judiciary Budget fully, we sent a transition letter to Chief Judge Janet DiFiore applauding the Judiciary’s commitment to funding civil legal services for the most vulnerable New Yorkers. We also offered Chief Judge DiFiore a series of recommendations aimed at improving court efficiency and the administration of justice, increasing access to justice, and better meeting the needs of litigants.

Our committees defended constitutional rights and due process in a number of important cases over the past year through our role as amicus curiae. Five of our committees—Sex & Law, Domestic Violence, Civil Rights, LGBT Rights, and Women in the Legal Profession—teamed up to file an amicus brief in the U.S. Supreme Court in support of petitioners in the abortion case of Whole Woman’s Health v. Cole. Our Civil Rights Committee also filed an amicus brief in the Second Circuit in United States v. Jane Doe, in support of a decision to expunge the petitioner’s criminal conviction.

With the help of a pro bono team at Latham & Watkins, our LGBT Rights Committee and the Council on Children, along with several co-amici, filed  briefs in two cases pending before the State Court of Appeals: In the Matter of Brooke S.B. and In the Matter of Estrellita A. Our brief opposed a judicially created “bright line” that precluded recognition of a lesbian mother’s standing as a “parent” because she had no biological or adoptive tie to her child.

The City Bar is proud to be at the forefront on many international human rights issues.  Last summer, our Committees on International Human Rights and Asian Affairs authored a letter to the President of the People’s Republic of China to express grave concern regarding the intimidation, arrest, detention, and enforced disappearance of 228 Chinese lawyers, their families, and supporters. The letter received attention in the press and by the Chinese government. And in September, I, along with representatives from our Council on International Affairs and the President and President-elect of the State Bar, met with delegates and legal scholars from China and engaged in an open dialogue intended to promote understanding and democratic ideals. On another occasion, our International Affairs Council hosted Teng Biao, a well-known human rights attorney and speaker who has suffered persecution in China.

Indeed, we hosted visitors from many countries this year, including Chile, Venezuela, Pakistan, Spain, France, Korea, and Ukraine. We met with the President of the International Criminal Court for Rwanda and the Consul-General of Egypt, and held programs on migration in Europe, child soldiers, and pandemic diseases.

In March, the City Bar, in collaboration with the global law firm Linklaters LLP, launched a Task Force and online resource to promote transparency and good governance in the process to select the next United Nations Secretary General, who will take office at the end of 2016. In April, as the United Nations General Assembly convened a special session on the world drug problem, we released our Drugs and the Law Committee’s report with recommendations on how to solve it.

To coincide with the opening day of the United Nations conference in Paris that resulted in a historic climate accord, the City Bar’s Legal Issues of Climate Adaptation Task Force published a report arguing that in addition to mitigation schemes like carbon taxes and “cap-and-trade” programs, wide-ranging urban and rural adaptation plans must be adopted internationally to cope with the inevitable effects of climate change. To pay for such measures in developing countries, the Task Force recommends a financial transaction microtax on trades of financial instruments.

The City Bar made news on a regular basis in the past year, in the Law Journal and beyond, with letters, articles, and quotes in the New York Times and Wall Street Journal. C-SPAN broadcast our program on Women in Combat. Foreign Policy covered our open letter on the treatment of China’s human rights lawyers and their allies. The Daily News advised immigrants with legal issues to call us for help. Crain’s New York Business covered our report on how providing lawyers to people facing eviction would save the city money. Politico wrote that we “lashed out at Mitch McConnell and Chuck Grassley for their refusal to consider the forthcoming Supreme Court nominee. A bit dramatic, I think, given our diplomatically composed correspondence, but I suppose it comes with the territory. And, finally, the Village Voice covered our program on cannabis policy, asking in its headline: “Is Recreational Weed Still in Play with New York State and City Lawmakers?”

The City Bar Fund continues its wonderful work. Under the leadership of Executive Director Lynn Kelly, the City Bar Justice Center in the past year helped clients obtain over $2 million in benefits and monetary awards; saved NY taxpayers about $2.5 million by helping clients obtain or maintain housing and avoid homeless shelters, and secure employment and appropriate government benefits; leveraged over $18 million in pro bono legal services for the poor and economically distressed; helped clients discharge over $6 million in debt through consumer bankruptcy and foreclosure prevention advocacy; and won Veterans Disability benefits totaling over $1.75 million in retroactive benefits and over $41,000 in new, ongoing, monthly benefits for clients.

The Cyrus R. Vance Center for International Justice, under the leadership of Executive Director Alex Papachristou, provided pro bono representation to 57 NGOs and international organizations in 72 matters in 2015; and, in so doing, its dedicated staff worked alongside 358 lawyers offering their services pro bono from 164 law firms in 61 countries. In October, the Vance Center honored two Guatemalan jurists, former Attorney General Claudia Paz y Paz and current High Risk tribunal judge Yasmin Barrios, for their courageous defense of the rule of law in the prosecution of former dictator Efrain Rios Montt and his intelligence chief for genocide and crimes against humanity, as well as other former military and government officials for atrocities committed during the country’s long civil war.

The City Bar’s Lawyer Assistance Program, under the leadership of Eileen Travis, continues to provide crucial assistance and support to lawyers, judges, and law students struggling with mental health issues, substance abuse, and addiction. This year, LAP undertook a major outreach project to the bar and bench in light of a new, landmark study conducted by the ABA’s Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs and the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation that reflects widespread problem drinking and mental health issues in the legal community.

The Office for Diversity and Inclusion, led by Director Gabrielle Brown, added more than a dozen law firms and corporations to our Signatories to the Statement of Diversity Principles. The Office surveys the diversity initiatives of our signatory firms annually, with an updated version this year which includes new sections on pipeline efforts, allocation of diversity spend, workflow and compensation, and best practices.

As I leave office, I am pleased to pass the baton to someone I know will be a great President, John Kiernan. I would like to give special thanks to our Executive Committee, under the leadership of Chair Hallie Levin, and the hard work of our wonderful staff, headed up by Executive Director Bret Parker.

What this institution accomplishes is remarkable. The commitment and passion with which it addresses issues affecting the public at the local, regional, national, and international levels, as well as issues affecting the profession and the practice of law, is inspiring. The work our members do showcases the very best of what we have to offer as lawyers, citizens of this great city, and champions of a nation that, despite this year’s particularly vituperative party politics, continues to embrace democratic ideals, due process, and the rule of law.

Thank you to our members for all of your hard work, and for making the New York City Bar Association a beacon of sanity, decorum, and principled discourse.

Debra L. Raskin is the former President of the New York City Bar Association.