Scott Karson's deeply held belief in the power of the law and the responsibility of lawyers can be summed up in one simple sentence that he delivers with confidence and resolve: "Lawyers are the guardians of justice."
Guardians protect and defend, Karson notes, and lawyers do that every day for their clients. Karson believes that the lawyers who are members of the New York State Bar Association understand this weighty responsibility. Those who serve the association through its sections and committees protect and defend when they advance the cause of justice by helping to make the rules fair, elevate the finest candidates to the bench and ensure that the legal system works for everyone.
Sometimes it takes years before a task force or committee sees legislation passed or a rule changed as a result of its recommendation, acknowledges Karson, a NYSBA member for more than 31 years. It requires stamina and persistence, and the certainty of a just cause. These lawyers are in it for the long haul.
Guardian of Justice
Scott Karson knows this from personal experience. During his tenure as chair of the association's Committee on Courts of Appellate Jurisdiction from 1998 to 1999, the committee initiated a study of the rates charged for court transcripts, which could vary widely, despite the rules of the Chief Administrator of the Courts, which set standard rates.
"The key to variance in the rates was the phrase in the rule 'unless otherwise agreed to,'" explains Karson. That meant that if asked about their rates, the court reporter could name the rate he or she wished to be paid, rather than what the rule prescribed. If an attorney was uninformed about the rule and said 'yes' (as was generally the case), then the rate was 'otherwise agreed to.' Of course, the additional cost of obtaining the transcript was ultimately borne by the client.
As the result of a report issued by the committee, which was approved by the association, the rule was amended to eliminate the fee disparities. However, the court reporters' unions challenged the amendment, arguing before the Public Employment Relations Board (PERB) that any change in the rule should be subject to collective bargaining. Karson testified on behalf of the Unified Court System at the hearing, but the administrative law judge found for the unions. The Unified Court System brought an Article 78 proceeding to challenge the decision. The Appellate Division, Third Department reversed, finding for the state in a ruling that quoted Karson's PERB testimony.
What some might see as a technical correction, Karson sees its larger context. "You could have situations where the court and the attorneys could be charged five dollars a page for a transcript of hundreds of pages," he says, "when the rule stated it should be a dollar a page. This markedly increased the costs of litigation, which can affect how and whether justice is served."
As a strong supporter of the judiciary, Karson has been fighting for fair pay and working conditions for those who serve on the bench. Beginning in 1992, NYSBA passed a series of resolutions endorsing judicial pay raises. In 2011, NYSBA joined a renewed push to raise judges' pay, which had stagnated since 1997. "As then-President Vince Doyle testified at a hearing about judicial pay, when adjusted for statewide cost of living, judicial pay ranked last in the nation," Karson recalls. "We know that just compensation is essential to attracting the highest quality candidates for judgeships."
While some have questioned whether bar associations should be involved in judicial candidate screening, Karson strongly believes they should.
"An active, thorough and rigorous screening program is essential to ensure that only the most qualified people end up on the bench," he says, adding, "and there is no one more qualified to conduct such screening than lawyers and no organizations better suited to do so than bar associations." Karson applauds the recent approval by the House of Delegates of the report and recommendations of the Task Force on the Evaluation of Candidates for Election to Judicial Office. He says, "The Task Force report and recommendations should encourage bar associations to conduct screening of candidates for judicial office."
Karson recently completed his second stint on NYSBA's Committee to Review Judicial Nominations, which evaluates candidates for the New York Court of Appeals. Karson says that his service on that committee has been a "real honor."
"We split up into small groups to interview the different candidates for the Court of Appeals. It was an amazing - and sobering - experience interviewing candidates for the highest court in the state," he relates, adding, "It really was exciting."
Karson has a well-earned reputation as a lawyer who sees all aspects of an issue, pays great attention to detail, is determined to get it right and has the patience to make sure that he does. He describes himself as "deliberative." These are optimal qualities for a lawyer, but Karson had no thought of law school when he started college. "I was pre-med," he says. However, he concluded after his freshman year that medicine was not in his future.
From Pre-med to Law
For young American men in the 1960s, the Vietnam War cast an enormous shadow, as many were subject to be drafted into the armed forces. Although Karson considered education as an alternative to medicine, the availability of draft deferments caused many to seek out teaching jobs, making that field crowded and fiercely competitive. Karson switched to an interdisciplinary major in the social sciences including history, psychology, anthropology, sociology and communications, a broad survey of areas of study a lawyer would need. He remained interested in education and spent his final semester at college as a student-teacher in high school social studies. But, again, there was a glut of draft age young men seeking teaching jobs, so Karson decided to go to law school.
It was fortuitous. Karson was then engaged to his wife, Joleen. He implies that he went to law school because he wanted to get married and so didn't take the time to "find himself," as it seemed so many other young people were doing. But clearly, Karson did find himself in law school
At Syracuse University College of Law, Karson was senior survey editor of the Syracuse Law Review and graduated cum laude. After graduation and admission to the bar, he joined the Suffolk County District Attorney's Office as an assistant district attorney, where he tried cases, conducted investigations and, ultimately, argued appeals. His appellate work impressed the Hon. Lawrence J. Bracken, Associate Justice of the Appellate Division, Second Department, who invited Karson to be his law secretary. Karson accepted, a decision he will never regret. He says, "Justice Bracken was a superb judge, a mentor and a friend. He made me a well-rounded and respected member of our profession."
Justice Bracken was a member of NYSBA's Committee on Courts of Appellate Jurisdiction, and he urged Karson to join NYSBA because he believed that Karson would be a real asset to that committee. Karson joined NYSBA and was appointed to the committee in 1993. Five years later, then-
NYSBA President Joshua Pruzansky named him committee chair.
After his time as law secretary, Karson entered private practice, joining Lamb & Barnosky in Melville where he is a commercial and municipal litigator with a concentration in appellate work. He is now a partner.
Lamb & Barnosky has a strong history of service and an active presence at the Suffolk County Bar. "Bar activity is part of the firm DNA," Karson says. When Karson became Suffolk County Bar Association president in 2004, he was the fourth member of his firm to hold that office. It was for his term as president that Karson developed his theme, "Lawyers are the guardians of justice."
When asked what he sees as important during his term as president, Karson unhesitatingly cites civic education. "We have citizens who can name all the judges on 'American Idol' but can't name a justice of the U.S. Supreme Court," he said.
Karson believes that "bar associations can make a big contribution to the level of knowledge in society." He and President Hank Greenberg have agreed to work together, with the support of N.Y. Court of Appeals Chief Judge Janet DiFiore, on joint bench-bar strategies and programming around civic education.
And if he could snap his fingers and put in place a mechanism for that education? Karson talked about the Colorado Justice Learning Center, a 4,000-square-foot interactive museum about the law housed in that state's supreme and appellate court building in Denver.
The museum, which is free, features installations about the law and the history of the judicial system, as well as kiosks where a small group can conduct a mock trial, playing the various roles of party attorneys, judge and jury, or where individuals take turns being a judge in a bench trial.
"It's impressive," notes Karson. "Giving people the hands-on opportunity to see how the judicial process works and to be part of it - it's eye-opening, especially for young people. The future of our democracy depends on our youth. Having this experience may interest them in learning more about the law."
A Little History and a Celebration
Karson's family was part of the great post-World War II wave of families who left the city and moved to Long Island. The Karsons ended up in Great Neck.
His family fit right in with Great Neck's progressive community. "No one in my family was a lawyer," he says, "but we all believed in the power of the law to right wrongs and to ensure justice."
Karson met his wife, Joleen, when they were counselors at Camp Wel-Met, a summer camp in Narrowsburg, New York, in the Catskills. The camp was just 10 miles from the three-day Woodstock festival in 1969, and Scott and Joleen spent their day off at the festival.
This past April, the Suffolk County Bar Association hosted an event to celebrate Karson's becoming NYSBA's president-elect. Nearly 200 people came to honor Karson, including incoming NYSBA treasurer, Domenick Napoletano. That impressed some of the attendees: "He came all the way from Brooklyn?!" Karson replied, "He had to. I have to go to Brooklyn tomorrow night." Humor aside, Karson was deeply moved by the outpouring of support and affection from his colleagues. "I will cherish this evening," he said.
When Karson becomes president on June 1, 2020, it will mark the first time that NYSBA has had back-to-back presidents who earned their law degrees from the Syracuse University College of Law.