Reflections of a Former Law Clerk

By Ta-Tanisha D. James

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This article is part of New York Law: A View From the Bench, a special section in the May issue of the NYSBA Journal edited by Court of Appeals Associate Judge Michael J. Garcia. Read Judge Garcia’s introduction to the section here.

No discussion of judges or judging would be complete without acknowledging the role of law clerks in our court system. I am honored, in this special edition of the Journal, to represent the law clerks who do so much to shape New York law, from our trial courts to our court of last resort.

It was 20 years ago that I first understood what it meant to have a professional family. I had the distinct privilege of serving as Senior Court Attorney to the Hon. George Bundy Smith, an associate judge of the New York State Court of Appeals. The years that I spent with Judge Smith were marvelously challenging, professionally gratifying, and unquestionably life-changing. His keen intellect, fierce passion, and love of the law were palpable and remain evident today in his writings. As a law clerk, I admired Judge Smith, and today, as a judge, I seek to emulate him. I am guided by his intellectual strength and his profound commitment to fairness, inclusiveness, and equality.

Clerking for the Court of Appeals was also an enriching opportunity to work with great legal minds that hailed from across the state. Every few weeks, when the Court was in session, legal scholars of diverse professional and personal backgrounds convened in Albany to analyze issues of statewide importance. But perhaps the most enduring lessons of my clerkship came from my colleagues and the career clerks at the Court. Together, we discussed cases, debated issues, and contemplated the effect of decisions to be applied by courts of lower jurisdictions. Our impassioned discussions occurred over dinners and on trains traveling along the Hudson River to Albany, where we huddled together around small television screens to hear (and critique) the lawyers presenting legal arguments to our judges. We reveled in the indescribable thrill of hearing a question that we had framed in our bench reports. It was an exhilarating, enlightening, and often exhausting experience – and an intellectual highlight of my career.

The collaborative experience of working in Albany played a formative role in my career, defining me as a lawyer and a judge. I never hesitate to reach out to colleagues to discuss a legal issue I have encountered. I view spirited debate as an important means of testing my own views and sharpening my analysis. And I understand the immense value of the institutional knowledge of career court personnel. In my service as a judge, I rely almost daily on skills learned from my professional family.

My years as a law clerk also structure my relationship with my own court attorney. In selecting a court attorney, I sought someone with a desire to continually grow and who would be comfortable challenging my view. As a judge, I question everything that is presented to me – including by my court attorney – and I expect her to do the same of me. I push my court attorney to think of the legal arguments presented by counsel as the starting part of her analysis and then to dig deeper. I expect her to find legal arguments that were missed by counsel – to hear what the parties say and to recognize what they omit. I ask her to be cognizant of the inherent predispositions that we all bring to cases. I press her to challenge the foundations of arguments, to reach the core of issues, and to question her own analysis regularly – not because it is flawed, but because it can always be strengthened. I allow her to form her own opinions, just as Judge Smith did with me, and I strive never to dismiss her views, even when they are diametrically opposed to mine.

As a junior attorney, I cherished my time as law clerk. Now, as a judge, that appreciation has only deepened. I can only hope to provide my own court attorney the same challenging, thrilling, and rewarding experience that Judge Smith gave to me.

Ta-Tanisha James presides over the integrated 81 Mental Hygiene Law Guardianships/Landlord-Tenant Part in Supreme Court, New York County.

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