Dear Member of the Queens County Bar Association,
I want to thank each and every QCBA Member for the moving tribute of our Annual Dinner and Journal. I am profoundly honored to be chosen as your President for the 2015-2016 year.
To prepare to be your QCBA President, I spoke with many past Presidents. Of course, I spoke at length with our esteemed Executive Director, Arthur Terranova. Arthur and I also attended a three day Bar Leadership convention at the American Bar Association in Chicago. There we heard from Bar Presidents, Executive Directors, staff and consultants from all over the country.
The best advice I received for this job came from our past President Gary Darche. All of our past Presidents said that the job is what you make it. But Gary specifically told me to concentrate on one or two projects and make these the priority for the QCBA for the upcoming year.
I gave this advice considerable thought. I reviewed everything I have learned about our civil and criminal justice systems these past 47 years, nearly half a century – seven years of college and law school, and 40 years of practice. I tried to integrate as one whole my two years as a prosecutor, one year as a part-time Acting Village Justice, 19 years as a part-time public defender (18-B and CJA), and 38 overlapping years involved with civil cases of every description.
All of this experience, thought, consultations and attendance at high toned lectures led me to two inescapable conclusions:
1. The 8thAmendment is in serious trouble.
2. The 7thAmendment is not doing very well either.
1. 8th Amendment
Our City and State prisons are a disgrace. The U.S. Attorney recently obtained a conviction against a Rikers Island NYC Corrections Department Captain. A mentally ill inmate awaiting trial swallowed a soap ball. Corrections Officers on the scene tried to call for medical help. This Captain forbade them from doing so. The inmate died the next day. (seeGoogle, www.cbsnews.com/news/rikers-island-guard-convicted-in-nyc-inmates-2012-death/).
This was no isolated incident.
I had a client who tried to hang himself at the State Prison in Attica because of the abominable prison conditions. His mother came to visit him. Corrections produced him naked for the visit. His mother could no longer bear to visit him after that. She could not bring herself to witness the inhumane treatment of her son. Following his suicide attempt some years later, correction officers placed him on the cold hard floor of a locked, dark cell for four days before seeking medical and psychiatric help.
I was so incensed by this that I took this case to trial in the U.S. District Court in Buffalo at my own expense, airplanes and hotels included, not to mention the missed time from the regular law practice. Jury selection was very revealing. Even though Federal Judges usually do the questioning themselves, I was permitted to participate in this case. Virtually every juror had a friend or a relative who worked for the State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS).
DOCCS has a $2.8 BILLION budget for 2014-2015. (See Google, www.budget.ny.gov/pubs/executive/ eBudget1516/agencyPresentations/appropData/). Essentially, DOCCS is a large component of the Upstate economy. Ordinary citizens are being subsidized to work for DOCCS to create cruel and unusual punishment in complete violation of the 8th Amendment.
This has got to stop.
Ideally, DOCCS and the NYC Dept. of Corrections should be abolished entirely and their functions transferred to SUNY and CUNY. DOCCS and City Corrections Dept. culture are antithetical to any idea of “Corrections” – defined as correcting past criminal conduct.
Changing people’s behavior and outlook on life is a distinctly educational function. It is not done by ignoring a prisoner choking on a soap ball and being slowly poisoned to death. It is not done by cruelly parading a prisoner in front of his mother while naked. It is not done by leaving a mentally ill prisoner on a cold stone floor in a locked dark prison cell.
I have created the QCBA Advocates for Prisoners Committee. I hope our new Committee will obtain the name and prison or jail assignment of every Queens County prisoner. I hope our Committee members will be in regular contact with that prisoner and each member of his family who is interested in him: Mother, Father, Sister, Brother, Uncle, Aunt, Cousin.
I hope our Committee will create a torrent of emails, letters and telephone calls to prove to Corrections that we in Queens County CARE ABOUT EACH AND EVERY ONE OF OUR NEIGHBORS’ CHILDREN WE SEND INTO THE ABYSMAL DISGRACE WE CALL “CORRECTIONS.”
Over the years, I have found that Corrections Officials do, in fact, care about one thing: oversight from independent lawyers. They do not want the lawsuits they richly deserve. I am hopeful that our QCBA Advocates for Prisoners Committee will regularly write the following letter:
Dear Superintendent Smith:
Our QCBA Advocates for Prisoners Committee
has been contacted by the family of Mr. John Jones, a
prisoner in your “care, custody and control.”
The Jones Family of Queens County reports that
Mr. Jones is being threatened by Mr. Bob Fields, another
of your prisoners. Mr. Fields has threatened Mr. Jones
with bodily harm if he does not give up his sneakers.
Your Correction Officers are not responding to these
threats against Mr. Jones.
You are directed to investigate this situation
immediately. If there is truth to these allegations, you
are directed to transfer Mr. Jones to a different cell
block, or better yet, a different prison, far away from
If you do not, this letter will serve as a written
record that you knew all about this impending felony
assault, and you personally did nothing about it.
QCBA Advocates for
Why is it that we tolerate felony assault, and worse, in prison and jail, but regularly indict people for the same crime when out of prison or jail? What sense does any of this make? By sending people to “Corrections” (as currently structured) are we, in fact, creating more crime than we had in the first place?
Over the course of the past 40 years, I have written this letter several times on my own initiative, on my own stationery. Often, it works. The threat is removed by a transfer. I have gotten return letters thanking me for saving the client’s life.
Think of how much more effective we can be if this letter is sent out dozens of times a month on QCBA stationery.
2. 7th Amendment
To prepare to serve as your QCBA President I visited with Justice Jeremy Weinstein, our Queens County Supreme Court, Civil Term, Administrative Judge. I also visited with Judge Joseph Esposito, our Queens County Civil Court Supervising Judge. I also visited with Referee Richard Lazarus, now in charge of the Preliminary Conference Part (hundreds and hundreds of cases).
Waiting time for a Matrimonial Trial is now more than one year. Waiting time for other types of civil trials in the Queens County Supreme Court is 14 months from the date the Note of Issue is filed. As discovery disputes drag on for months or years, this means a dispute is often four or five years old before a Judicial Officer actually spends an hour or more listening to both sides and trying to promote a settlement.
In the Civil Court, some cases are getting 2019 trial dates, four years from now.
JUSTICE DELAYED IS JUSTICE DENIED.
There is a solution, and it was pioneered by the late Judge Allen Beldock. Before the last round of ill-advised State Budget cutbacks, we had a team of Judicial Hearing Officers (JHOs). These were retired judges who worked for the State on a per diem basis helping to conference and settle cases, among other judicial duties.
The JHO program was wrongfully, drastically cut back in recent years. Most judges retire at age 76. When the State would no longer pay Judge Beldock as a JHO, he kept on working four days a week without compensation. Of course, he was receiving his state judicial pension, so he was not without income.
At his recent funeral, Judge Beldock’s son told us that his father loved our Queens County Courts, and that the reason he lived to the age of 96 years and 5 days, twenty years past his retirement age was because he felt that his experience and wisdom was appreciated and useful every day he spent at our courthouses on Sutphin Blvd.
So I am creating the QCBA JUDGE ALLEN BELDOCK REFEREES COMMITTEE with the specific goal of bringing all of our civil calendars up to date. For more than 30 years, I served as a Member, Chair or Co-Chair of our QCBA Bar Panels Committee. We reviewed the credentials of applicants for the County Law Article 18-B Panels for service as part-time Public Defenders in the Queens County Criminal Court, Queens County Family Court, Queens County Supreme Court Criminal Term, and in the Appellate Division, Second Department and State Court of Appeals for Queens County cases. After we certified attorneys as qualified, they would be appointed by our Court administrators.
So I hope it will be with the QCBA Judge Allen Beldock Referees Committee. I hope our new Committee will interview, check credentials, and certify volunteer Referees for service in Matrimonial cases, Personal Injury cases, Property dispute cases, Human Rights cases, Employment cases, and General civil cases. Just as our Bar Panels Committee does, I hope this new Committee will provide our Court administrators with enough certified Referees to clear up the backlog. CPLR Article 43 specifically allows our Courts to appoint a Referee to perform judicial functions when necessary.
For those applicants wishing to serve as Referees who do not qualify, I hope our new Judge Allen Beldock Referees Committee will offer the following CLE: “How to Effectively Settle a Case by Listening Carefully to Both Sides and Making Incremental Suggestions.” This new CLE curriculum can be vetted by our QCBA Academy of Law.
If this plan is followed, the 7th Amendment will be restored. There will be no four and five year wait for a jury trial, because our outstanding bench will be able to devote themselves to that smaller group of cases that our QCBA Judge Allen Beldock Referees were unable to settle after diligent effort.
• Can we do this all in one year?
• Can we make our jails and prisons more humane?
• Can we clear up our civil case backlog?
Queens County Justices, Judges, Referees, Law Secretaries, Court Attorneys and lawyers are the finest group of people I have ever known – fair-minded, diligent and caring about Justice Itself. I am beyond honored to have spent my professional life among you and to serve as your President.
Together, we can do this.
Please sign up for one or both of these new Committees, and rededicate yourself to the twin goals of reinvigorating the 8th Amendment and the 7thAmendment in Queens County in our time.
Paul E. Kerson