John R. Dunne was chair of the New York State Senate Committee on Crime and Correction when the uprising at the Attica Correctional Facility began on Sept. 9, 1971. On Sept. 10, 1,000 inmates took control of the prison. The inmates barricaded themselves in Cellblock D, holding about 40 hostages. They posted a list of demands.
With a small contingent, Dunne traveled to Attica to negotiate with the inmates. He urged then-Gov. Nelson Rockefeller to meet with them too. But the Governor refused and on Sept. 13, ordered what became a bloody takeover of the prison. Dunne’s strong disagreement with the governor’s actions, a member of his own party, became public.
Dunne’s meeting with the inmates and his reaction to the takeover came from his deep commitment to fairness and justice. When the uprising thrust him uncharacteristically into the spotlight, he stood on principle. Throughout his tenure as corrections committee chair, Dunne continued to meet with inmates, including those transferred from Attica after the riots to discuss prison conditions.
After the Attica uprising, Dunne quietly continued his work.
In recognition of his distinguished career of service in pursuit of what is right and just, Dunne received the 2019 Haywood Burns Memorial Award on Oct. 16 during a ceremony at City University of New York School of Law. The award honors a commitment to the struggle for justice that characterized the life work of Dean W. Haywood Burns, the late civil rights lawyer and academic.
Prior to the awards ceremony, Dunne moderated a panel discussion entitled “The Sixth Amendment – Past, Present and Future.”
“John Dunne is the best of the best,” said NYSBA President Hank Greenberg. “Over a lengthy career, he has distinguished himself in public service (at the highest levels) and private practice. He epitomizes everything a lawyer should aspire to be. He is – and has always been – a class act.”
‘HONORABLE AND CONSCIENTIOUS’
In nominating Dunne, David Louis Cohen, a criminal defense attorney who was counsel to the Assembly Judiciary Committee when Dunne chaired the state Senate Judiciary Committee, remarked that Dunne’s first question about any issue being considered was its impact on the public, “rather than its political benefits.”
He left the Senate in 1989 after 23 years of representing Nassau County, and in 1990 was appointed by then-Pres. George H.W. Bush as assistant attorney general for civil rights. His appointment raised questions from some Democrats but New York Democrats were supportive. Rep. Charles Rangel wrote that the president “couldn’t pick a more decent person than John Dunne.” Then-Gov. Mario Cuomo called Dunne an “honorable and conscientious public servant” who was “dedicated to the rule of law.”
During his tenure at the Civil Rights Division, Dunne worked to enforce and expand the voting rights of minorities, uncover discrimination and halt unfair election laws. He left in 1994 to return to private practice.
Over his entire career, Dunne has worked tirelessly to improve the rights of prisoners and the conditions of New York prisons.
After Attica, as prisoners’ rights clinics sprang up at New York law schools, NYSBA’s Criminal Justice Section was considering how best to establish a path to civil representation for indigent prisoners. In 1975, under then-NYSBA President Robert Patterson, funding was secured for the incorporation of the Prisoners’ Legal Services of New York (PLS). Albany Law School’s clinic became the office of the statewide legal services program. Dunne was one of its founding directors and served on the board for nearly 25 years. In 2014, PLS created an award in his honor – the John R. Dunne Champion of Justice Award. Dunne was its first recipient.
OTHER CIVIL RIGHTS WORK
Jonathan Gradess, executive director of the New York State Defenders Association, who worked with Dunne on rolling back the Rockefeller drug laws and eliminating the death penalty, describes Dunne as “a Dorothy Day devotee who worked for George Bush, Sr.” and “a former NY State Senator who can be trusted to stand up for the little guy.”
In 2004, then-Chief Judge Judith Kaye appointed Dunne to her Commission on the Future of Indigent Legal Services. The commission’s work led to the establishment of the state Office of Indigent Legal Services (OLS). William Leahy, OLS director, said that Dunne, who served on the OLS board, believes an “effective defense of the poor is the preservation of civil liberties for all” and “lives and breathes it every day.”