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From Queens to the NY State Supreme Court

"What makes New York City so great is its racial, ethnic, and economic diversity," says Justice Debra A. James '78, a longtime resident of New York City, who was appointed to the state's Supreme Court in 2002 and sits in its civil term. That diversity needs to be reflected in the courts that serve the city and state, she says. But the methods for choosing judges-election and appointment-are both vulnerable to partisan politics, she notes, and reforms may be needed to ensure the bench remains diverse.

Justice James, who has worked much of her life in public-sector law in the city, moved to its Harlem neighborhood in the late 1980s, because "it was a vibrant, culturally rich community" that she wanted to be part of. At the time she was general counsel to the Roosevelt Island Operating Corporation, a state agency that served a mixed-income planned community built on land in New York City's East River. Before that she had been an attorney for New York State mortgage agencies, where she helped people with low incomes buy their first homes. "Affordable housing will always be an issue in New York City, and remains a concern of mine," she says.

Through her community and civic work in Harlem she met her elected officials, who told her she'd make an excellent judge and asked her to be a candidate for a civil court judgeship in the city's tenth municipal court district. She ran and won in 1995, and soon found that, with her legal background and strong sense of justice and equity, judicial work was a perfect fit. Others apparently thought so too. In 2002 she was appointed to her current post with the state's Supreme Court.

Justice James is quick to point out that she was neither the first African American woman to serve on the court, nor the only one. "It's a diverse bench. There are a host of judges who are minorities and women-trailblazers who helped mentor others." She now presides over bench and jury trials in an enormous variety of civil actions, from personal injury lawsuits-the most common-to commercial contract and real estate disputes. The workload can be demanding-Justice James has an inventory of 400 cases on the docket at any given time. But it also can be rewarding, especially in those instances where her judgments make a difference in the quality of someone's life, she says.

She recalls one such case, involving an elderly man, suffering from dementia and seemingly without family or resources, who lawyers for the state of New York wanted to commit to a state-run nursing facility. The man disputed the claim that he was a danger to himself and to others and asserted his right to a jury trial. "He was feisty, determined," Justice James recalls. During the course of the trial "he made some extraordinary claims-that he had been a filmmaker and that his estranged son was head of NATO. Clearly he had some mental health issues, but those could be treated," she said.

After the jury found that the man was not dangerous and only needed economic help, Justice James secured rooms for him in a residential hotel in Manhattan. She ordered the state to look further into the man's assertions. As a result of her ruling, the man's son was located in Europe, where he had been attending law school-not NATO meetings. "He was grateful to be put back in touch with his father," James said. And some of the films that the man claimed to have made were discovered among his personal effects.

Justice James grew up in Queens, New York, in a household where both her parents emphasized education. She chose Cornell's College of Arts and Sciences for her undergraduate studies because of its strong reputation in the sciences-then an interest of hers-and its Africana Studies and Research Center. "I wanted to learn more about African Americans in general, and it was considered the premier place to do that," she said. "I took advantage of every area of study-Ezra Cornell's motto really resonated for me."

But her father, a former engineer with the Tennessee Valley Authority in the southern U.S., encouraged her to become a lawyer-perhaps because he'd experienced firsthand the injustice of Jim Crow laws there. "That was my father's dream for me. At first I resisted, but he was right, and I'm very fortunate that this is the path I chose," Justice James says. She ended up majoring in government, graduating with a B.A. in 1975 and enrolling in the Law School that fall.

Among her most influential instructors was Law School Professor Robert Summers. "He was a dynamic teacher who used the Socratic method to teach us about the philosophy behind the American system of law," she said. Another was David Danielski, a professor of government, whose course, Development of the Constitutional Rights of Black People in America, "was an exceptional combination of history and law." In addition, she credits Cornell Legal Aid Clinic directors John Capowski and Barry Strom and professors Irving Younger and Kevin Clermont for her knowledge base of litigation and trial law.

Justice James continues her involvement with Cornell, as University Council vice chair, and with the Law School, as a member of its Curia Society (New York City alumni group's annual dinner planning committee). A longtime member of the Cornell Black Alumni Association, she joined fellow members at a special exhibition of African American artists' work at Cornell's Johnson Museum in June 2006. Justice James herself collects work by such black artists as Albert Shaw, James Denmark, and Jerry and Terry Lynn.

For fun she enjoys Savoy ballroom-style swing dancing and listening to bebop, big band, and Latin-inspired music. An avid reader as well, she is a twenty-five-year member of a Harlem literary society and recently joined the New York County Lawyers' Association's Law and Literature Committee. Sounds like another perfect fit.

~ Linda Myers