ALBANY - 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.
James succeeds Vincent E. Doyle III of Buffalo (Connors & Vilardo) as head of the 77,000-member association. James becomes its third African-American president and first president to come from the nonprofit legal community since 1994.
James 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," James said.
Among his top priorities will be reforming New York's criminal discovery laws, helping former prisoners re-enter society, combating human trafficking and increasing public participation in elections.
Criminal Discovery Reform: 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," James said.
Prisoner Re-entry: A new special committee will study the problems encountered by people released from prison, including illegal job discrimination and access to housing, education, health care 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," James said.
Human Trafficking: To address an alarming increase in human trafficking, often referred to as "modern-day slavery," 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," said James. 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 James' 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 Bar Association.
Personal and Professional Background
Active in the State Bar since 1978, James for the past year served as president-elect, chairing the House of Delegates and co-chairing the President's Committee on Access to Justice. He previously served three terms as treasurer and as the vice president for the 11th district.
In addition to his Bar Association activities, James is a member of Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman's Justice Task Force, the state Permanent Sentencing Commission, the Departmental Disciplinary Committee for the First Judicial Department, the Committee on Character and Fitness for the Second Judicial Department and the Independent Judicial Election Qualification Commission for the 11th Judicial District.
James is a past president of the Queens County Bar Association and a former board member of the Metropolitan Black Bar Association. He also is former secretary and current board member of the Correctional Association of New York, a member of the American Council of Chief Defenders of the National Legal Aid and Defender Association and a board member of the New York State Defenders Association.
James earned his undergraduate degree from Brown University and his law degree from Boston University School of Law. He is married to Cheryl E. Chambers, associate justice of the Appellate Division, Second Department. They live in Brooklyn and have three adult children: Christopher, Cheryl Allison and Carole.
James will serve a one-year term as president. He will be succeeded in June 2013 by David M. Schraver, a partner at the Rochester office of Nixon Peabody. Schraver will become president-elect June 1.
The 77,000-member New York State Bar Association is the largest voluntary state bar association in the nation. It was founded in 1876.
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