Bar Association’s President on Same-Sex Marriage, Immigration, Civil Rights
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Barry Kamins is New York’s latest legatee and legend.
“It’s a very humbling experience to become president of an association whose list of past presidents include names such as Elihu Root, Charles Evan Hughes, and Cyrus Vance,” Mr. Kamins, the new head of the Bar Association of the City of New York, said.
The fact that he’s become the 62nd president of a prestigious organization whose members include 23,000 of the city’s 75,000 lawyers isn’t what’s made him a legend. Rather, it’s the fact that in the 136-year history of the bar association — the largest of any city in America — there has never been a president from outside Manhattan until Mr. Kamins came along.
Mr. Kamins, in fact, is about as Brooklyn as they come.
He hails from the Midwood section of the borough. His law offices — he’s a partner at Flamhaft, Levy, Kamins, Hirsch & Rendeiro — are on Court Street in downtown Brooklyn. His home is in Brooklyn Heights.
“One of the first things I want to do at the bar association is to ban the phrase, ‘outer borough,'” Mr. Kamins said, chuckling softly. “The Association of the Bar is an Association of the City of New York. The last time I checked, the City of New York was comprised of five counties. Without losing its identity, this association can make a better effort to recruit members from other counties — and can be more inclusive in a variety of ways.”
Lest those words create the impression that Mr. Kamins is some sort of a flinty crusader, let it be noted at once that he is about as Establishment as they come. He even wears a bow tie.
Mr. Kamins went to Columbia College, and then obtained a law degree from Rutgers University, where a fellow Brooklynite Ruth Bader Ginsburg — who later became an associate justice of the United States Supreme Court — was one of his teachers.
More Establishment credentials? Mr. Kamins served as deputy chief of the criminal court bureau of the Kings County District Attorney’s Office. He is an adjunct professor at both Fordham and Brooklyn Law Schools, and has written widely on criminal justice subjects. His book “New York Search and Seizure” is required reading for prosecutors and at law schools; it is in its 15th edition, and he needs to update it annually because some 500 new cases of relevance must be cited.
Mr. Kamins’s path to the inner sanctum of the Establishment — the West 44th Street landmark building, circa 1896, of the bar association — wasn’t entirely as gilded as his credentials might suggest. He knows what it’s like to work as a waiter and a busboy, for example. That’s because he’s been both — in the Catskills, where he worked summers during his student days.
It was a fiery law professor named Arthur Kinoy who steered Mr. Kamins toward criminal law. Kinoy had made a name for himself as a civil rights litigator and a defender of the Chicago Seven, the political radicals accused of conspiring to incite the riots that occurred during the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in 1968.
One cannot, of course, imagine Kinoy heading the bar association, let alone his equally celebrated but mercurial law partner William Kunstler. Mr. Kamins — whose out-of-court mien is mild — leaves his dogged court room persona behind when he walks out of court and into the bar association’s hallowed precincts.
Once there, he must deal with the association’s mission of lobbying for legal and judicial reform, and also of helping with pro bono work. Mr. Kamins must pay attention to the output of its 160 committees on issues ranging from aeronautics to the professional needs of young lawyers. He must socialize virtually every evening, an otherwise fatiguing task made more pleasant by the frequent companionship of his wife of three decades, Fern.
As president of the Bar Association, Mr. Kamins must speak out on contemporary legal issues.
“We were disappointed that the state Court of Appeals ruled against same sex marriages — and we will support new legislation in favor of such unions,” Mr. Kamins said. “At the same time, we supported the Supreme Court’s view that the military commissions at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba violated U.S. military law and provisions of the Geneva Conventions. We must continue to advocate for a proper balance between issues of national security and civil rights.
“In the end the rule of law must prevail. Whether the issue is one of surveillance by wiretapping without a warrant or court-stripping by legislation, our association will forcefully remind others of what John Adams said more than 200 years ago, ‘We are a government of laws and not of men,’ ” Mr. Kamins said.
He speaks out on immigration and employment. He speaks out on the need to eliminate mandatory retirement ages for most judges.
“The executive and legislative branches of our state government are not saddled with term limits. And yet, there is a mandatory retirement age of 70 for judges. While some of our judges can be certificated for three additional periods of two years each, why is there any mandatory age limitation at all?” Mr. Kamins said.
The question of the quality of the judiciary is particularly important for Mr. Kamins.
“After all, the Bar Association was founded in 1870 because of concern over corruption among the city’s judges,” he said, noting that the organization has an especially energetic committee that evaluates the judiciary.
Another issue that Mr. Kamins follows closely is collateral consequences of criminal convictions.
“A criminal conviction has direct and transparent consequences as well as indirect or collateral consequences. The court system imposes the direct consequences by sentencing defendants to periods of incarceration, periods of probation, and fines. However, it is the collateral and often hidden consequence that can be more devastating to a defendant and his or her family,” he said.
Mr. Kamins has two years — the traditional length of time that Bar Association presidents serve — in which to address such issues in his pulpit on West 44th Street. He’s not only a legatee at the bar association but already a legend. That should help.