Hon. Jane M. Bolin: Judging Across Decades

In 2021, the Society is celebrating Black History Month every month, spending the year looking back at the impact of Black New Yorkers on the legal history of the state. This article is adapted from an article by David L. Goodwin that was first published in the Dutchess County Historical Society Yearbook. The article in full appears here.

Born and raised in Poughkeepsie, but with a career in the five boroughs of New York City, Jane Matilda Bolin (1908–2007) is best known for a particular “first” of groundbreaking magnitude. She holds the honor of being the first African American judge in the entire United States, joining the bench of New York City’s Domestic Relations Court in 1939. Her appointment by Mayor Fiorello La Guardia, which came as some surprise to Bolin herself — summoned with her husband to an audience with the mayor at the 1939 World’s Fair, she was not informed of the mayor’s intentions in advance — made “news around the world.”[2]

About that news: in announcing this historical judgeship, some outlets hedged the call, if ever so slightly. The Chicago Defender, which “chronicled and catalyzed [the African American] community’s greatest accomplishments for nearly a century,”[3] proudly announced that La Guardia had “smashed a precedent for the entire United States” because Bolin was “thought to be the first Race woman judge to be appointed in this country.”[4] About two months later, the Defender had eliminated the qualifier, describing Judge Bolin as the “first Race woman to serve as a judge in the history of America.”[5] And despite the shifting nature of historical inquiry, her title has held firm; on the sad occasion of her obituary, she was still, resolutely, “the first black woman in the United States to become a judge.”[6]

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Hon. Sheila Abdus-Salaam: First African American Woman Appointed to the New York State High Court

In 2021, the Society is celebrating Black History Month every month, spending the year looking back at the impact of Black New Yorkers on the legal history of the state.

In celebration of our continuing series Every Month is Black History Month and in honor of Women’s History Month, we remember Hon. Shelia Abdus-Salaam. Shelia Abdus-Salaam was born in Washington, D.C., to working-class parents and educated in the city’s public schools. Upon earning her high school diploma, Judge Abdus-Salaam attended and graduated from Barnard College and Columbia University School of Law.

She began her judicial career with her election to the Civil Court of the City of New York in 1991. In 1993, she was elected to the Supreme Court of the State of New York for New York County and remained with the Court until 2009, when Governor David A. Paterson appointed her to the Appellate Division, First Department.  In 2013, Judge Abdus-Salaam became the first African American woman appointed to the bench of the New York Court of Appeals when Governor Andrew Cuomo’s nomination was confirmed by the Senate. After her nomination, the then-Justice said, “I have sought to uphold the laws of our state and treat all those who appear before me fairly and with respect and dignity. This nomination presents me with an opportunity to continue to serve New Yorkers and advocate for justice and fairness.”

During her short tenure on the Court of Appeals, Judge Abdus-Salaam accomplished her goal. In a statement following her colleague’s passing, Chief Judge Janet DiFiore stated:

“Her personal warmth, uncompromising sense of fairness, and bright legal mind were an inspiration to all of us who had the good fortune to know her. Sheila’s smile could light up the darkest room. The people of New York can be grateful for her distinguished public service.”

 

Catch up on the rest of our Every Month is Black History Month posts.

Every Month is Black History Month

Images from January, 2021 Calendar: Map depicting the status of slavery in the United States from 1775-1865, published 1893. Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Jean Blackwell Hutson Research and Reference Division, The New York Public Library.

Arrival of mail in New Amsterdam by Karl R. Free, a mural at the Ariel Rios Federal Building in Washington, D.C. Note the depiction of the enslaved person, in tattered clothing without shoes, receiving instruction about the mail delivery. Photographs in the Carol M. Highsmith Archive, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

 

We at the Historical Society of the New York Courts believe every month is Black history month, as the achievements and struggles of Black people are deeply woven into the fabric of the State and nation. As such, our 2021 calendar Race and Slavery in the New York Courts, 1625-1860 investigates the evolving relationship the state had with the draconian practice of slavery.

Each month this year, we will be highlighting a program, an oral history, or a story about the impact of Black people on the New York Courts, beginning in February in celebration of Black History Month.

Society President Emeritus Hon. Albert M. Rosenblatt writes in the opening of the 2021 calendar:

Our country is experiencing introspection into racial justice. As a historical society, it is right for us to examine this subject in the context of the New York State courts. The judiciary is but one of the three branches of government, and like the legislative and executive branches, it has influenced our political, social, economic, and cultural lives.

When it comes to the history of racial justice, and injustice, in our State, we look primarily to its antecedents, and for this we turn to the origins of slavery in New York, its evolution, and eventual abolition. The soil of what we now call New York had supported cultures eons before Europeans arrived here in the early 17th century. There are other important facets of racial justice in our history, but in this twelvemonth, we look at the roughly four centuries of our most recent history dealing with slavery. As I am completing a book on the Lemmon Slave Case, I can oblige by extrapolating some of my research and findings into a broader picture.

At the start, we might make an especially telling observation: New York has had slavery longer than not. Its trajectory has been toward freedom, but the line was neither swift nor straight. There were many fits and starts along the way.

 

Catch up on the rest of our Every Month is Black History Month posts.

Common Threads of Justice: Judith S. Kaye Teaching Fellowship Update

Over the next few weeks, we will be providing you with updates from our Judith S. Kaye Teaching Fellows as they teach remotely in BHSEC Queens and Manhattan. This week we are featuring new Fellow Jason Schulman, who is teaching Privacy, the Law, and New York on the Queens campus.

He had this to say:

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Common Threads of Justice: Invisible No More — The Eunice Carter Story

We at the Society were honored to be asked to participate as a sponsor in the webinar Invisible No More: The Eunice Carter Story, to collaborate with The Franklin H. Williams Judicial Commission and Office of Court Administration’s Office of Diversity & Inclusion. This program told the story of Eunice Carter, Esq., a remarkable woman who became the first African American woman Assistant District Attorney in NYS in the 1930s.

Her life and career were highlighted by her grandson Prof. Stephen L. Carter and great-granddaughter Leah Aird Carter, Esq., author and principal researcher of Invisible: The Forgotten Story of the Black Woman Lawyer Who Took Down America’s Most Powerful Mobster, respectively.

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Common Threads of Justice: Remembering Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg

We at the Society are mourning the passing of a Society friend and fellow New Yorker, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Justice Ginsburg was the second woman to serve on the Supreme Court bench after Justice Sandra Day O’Connor and held this position for 27 years — the culmination of a truly remarkable legal career dedicated to equal justice for all.

In her memory, we are proudly returning to two of our programs filled to overflowing at the New York City Bar Association, in which Justice Ginsburg graciously participated. These two programs were presented by us in partnership with the United States Supreme Court Historical Society. They are Ladies of Legend: The First Generation of American Women Attorneys and John Jay: A Family Affair. You can watch the video of Ladies of Legend. Unfortunately, the second program video is not available at this time.

Ladies of Legend features a warm and engaging exchange between Judge Kaye and Justice Ginsburg, which appears below.

Watch Ladies of Legend Program Introductions

 

You can watch the entire video of the Ladies of Legend lecture by clicking the link below:

Ladies of Legend

John Jay: A Family Affair

The strong and sure presence of Justice Ginsburg on the high court as well as her outreach as a role model to women and indeed us all will be deeply missed.

Legally Remote: Attorneys Surviving the Pandemic in Richmond County

This blog article was written by Elen Krut, Esq. Elen is a practicing attorney in Staten Island, NY. She graduated with honors from the Elisabeth Haub School of Law at Pace University and was admitted to practice in New York in 2017.

26 Central Avenue Courthouse

In the beginning of the promising new year, 2020, walking down the St. George area of Staten Island was an adventure for many attorneys. Going between the new 26 Central courthouse, the Hyatt Street support magistrate parts, the infamous 18 Richmond Terrace courthouse, and our small but mighty Family Court was an every-day routine for many. On the way, one would surely expect to meet a familiar face, slow down a bit to have a friendly conversation, stop by the Dunkin Donuts, visit a local grocery store, or get lunch with a colleague at Beso or the Gavel Grill.

However, oftentimes, tragedy comes as an unwanted guest, and in March of 2020, we found ourselves facing the

Not Guilty Deli Store

Covid-19 pandemic. Following the stay-at-home orders, we were locked in our houses. Some attorneys were forced to temporarily close their practices; some to work from home; and others were laid off. We all hoped and prayed for those who were battling the virus, as well as those who are out helping people in these shattering times.

One would know that the “stay at home” situation was quite serious when the most frequented St. George local grocery store saddened with an empty gloomy appearance. This local store is called “Not Guilty,” and it’s ironically and proudly located right across the street from the Criminal Court parts. However, “Not Guilty” was not the only empty place in this otherwise always energetic area. All businesses and offices, our courthouses, deposition office spaces, and everything else that used to make our legal system move forward, were just as empty and lifeless.

But those are the material things, conveniences and tools that we, as attorneys, used daily. What about people? How are our colleagues? How are they holding up? Are they safe? How are they handling this unprecedented situation that no one was ready for? What are their thoughts and experiences? Are they working remotely or not even remotely working?

As always, the most prudent answer is best found by going directly to the source. In the interviews conducted for the Historical Society of the New York Courts’ project to record lawyers’ response to the pandemic, we explored a variety of topics, including attorneys’ personal and professional experiences dealing with the pandemic, how their practice was affected, challenges they faced and had to overcome, as well as success stories, their lessons learned and advices shared. Below are the excerpts from their interviews.

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Common Threads of Justice: New Amici Podcast with Marilyn Marcus

Marilyn Marcus was recently featured in the Unified Court System’s Amici Podcast with John Caher to discuss our important project Dispensing Justice from a Distance: Journal of the NYS Courts During the 2020 Pandemic. As Marilyn notes, Dispensing Justice seeks to tell the individual stories of judges and court staff on-the-ground during the pandemic, handling essential matters, conducting virtual hearings, and ensuring everyone continues to get their day in court – showcasing in real time through these shared experiences how the courts never closed. It will also explore administration in various courthouses with administrative judges up the chain to Chief Judge Janet DiFiore and Chief Administrative Judge Lawrence K. Marks how the courts achieved this remarkable feat of going from in-person to remote working with the technology staff of the court system.

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Common Threads of Justice: Founding Father James Kent Podcast

In the continuation of our podcast series Chatting with the Authors, Judicial Notice author Hon. Robert S. Smith, retired Associate Judge of the NYS Court of Appeals, spoke to guest interviewer Daniel F. Loud about his article on James Kent – just in time for the Fourth of July. Kent had an illustrious career in the years following the American Revolution, and is best remembered for his decisions and written commentaries which helped shape the burgeoning common law in America. In this interesting podcast, Judge Smith provides his insights about the choices Kent made in his legal and judicial career.

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Common Threads of Justice: Harlem Law Program Podcast

The Society is proud of its longstanding partnership with Bard College, and specifically Bard High School Early College. With Bard, the Society has developed lesson plans and other curricula, teachers workshops across the state, and a fellowship that brings lawyers and scholars into the classroom to teach students about the important role of the courts in our society and empower students to understand the rights afforded to them by this branch of government.

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