Seymour W. James, Jr. of Brooklyn, a 38-year veteran of The Legal Aid Society of New York, assumes office on June 1 as the 115th president of the New York State Bar Association.
Mr. James succeeds Vincent E. Doyle III as head of the 77,000-member association. Mr. James becomes its third African-American president and first president to come from the nonprofit legal community since 1994. He is the attorney-in-charge of the criminal practice for The Legal Aid Society, which provides criminal and civil legal services for low-income individuals in New York City.
The theme for his presidency is “making a difference,” with an emphasis on access to justice. “Too often, justice is denied those least able to fight for themselves, such as the 16-year-old runaway forced into prostitution or the father of three who is denied a job or decent place to live because of a criminal conviction. We as lawyers must give a voice to the voiceless, whether in the courtroom or the halls of Congress and state Legislature,” Mr. James said.
Among his top priorities will be reforming New York's criminal discovery laws, helping former prisoners reenter society, combating human trafficking and increasing public participation in elections.
Criminal Discovery Reform: Mr. James plans to create a Task Force on Criminal Discovery Reform, which will examine reforms undertaken in other states and recommend changes to New York law. Among the issues to be studied will be requiring prosecutors to provide early, broad and automatic discovery of material. “New York’s antiquated criminal discovery laws are among the most restrictive in the nation. Criminal discovery reform is long overdue. There must be an even playing field in the courtroom -- for prosecution and defense -- if justice is to be achieved,” Mr. James said.
Prisoner R-entry: A new special committee will study the problems encountered by people released from prison, including illegal job discrimination and access to housing, education, healthcare and drug treatment programs. “If previously incarcerated individuals have the tools they need to become contributing members of society, multiple studies have shown they are less likely to return to prison,” Mr. James said.
Human Trafficking: To address an alarming increase in human trafficking, often referred to as “modern-day slavery,” Mr. James is appointing a special committee to explore how to assist adults and children forced into hard labor or prostitution. “Most New Yorkers are unaware of the magnitude of the human trafficking problem right here at home,” he said. From 2000 to 2007, about 20 percent of the cases prosecuted in the U.S. under the Trafficking Victims Protection Act were in New York, according to a 2008 report prepared for the National Institute of Justice.
Increasing Voter Participation: Another new committee will study ways to increase New York’s voter participation rate, often ranked among the lowest in the nation. The committee will examine possible reforms, such as automatic voter registration, streamlining the registration process, extending cut-off dates for advance registration, early voting, no-fault absentee balloting and increasing penalties for illegal election practices.
Other priorities: Among Mr. James’s other priorities are continuing the Association’s ongoing efforts to reduce wrongful convictions, increase funding for civil legal services and indigent defense representation, and enhance diversity in the Association.