Brooklyn CDP Out In Force For Begin Again


Staff in Brooklyn CDP were out in full force today to help hundreds of New Yorkers BEGIN AGAIN by clearing records of misdemeanor marijuana convictions or warrants and outstanding summons.

BEGIN AGAIN is sponsored by the Brooklyn District Attorney's office.  The event, which will continue through tomorrow, was held at the Lenox Road Baptist Church, 1356 Nostrand Avenue.  Community Justice Unit staffers were on hand to help New Yorkers with legal problems at The Legal Aid Society's Mobile Unit.

ABA: What principle links great baseball and great lawyering? Stoicism

 Sateesh Nori

Sateesh Nori

ABA | What principle links great baseball and great lawyering? Stoicism
September 18th, 2018
by Sateesh Nori

In July while watching my local New York Mets get massacred 25-4 by the mediocre Washington Nationals, the nadir was to see shortstop Jose Reyes play pitcher and give up 10 RBIs over 48 pitches. While the team was losing badly anyway, it was humiliating to watch Reyes fail in this way.

Late in his career Willie Mays was also a Met. Roger Angell wrote in 1971 about a 40-year-old Mays:

“He may have lost a half-second or so in getting down to first base, but I doubt whether Willie Davis or Ralph Garr or any of the other new flashes can beat Mays from first to third, or can accelerate just as he does … how much he resembles a marvelous skier in midturn down some steep pitch of fast powder. Nobody like him.”

Willie Mays was the arguably one of the best ever. In different seasons, he led the league in average, home runs and steals, all while playing the best center field of all time—and he did this as an African-American athlete at a time when baseball was still segregated, when he faced boos from the stands, when he had to stay in a different hotel from his white teammates.

Watching that Mets game made me reflect on failure and its elusive opposite. I thought about what it would mean to possess the most essential tools for success as a lawyer and how one would maintain those skills over a long legal career. What does it take? What made Willie Mays so good for such a long period of time?

I argue here that there is a principle that links great baseball and good lawyering: stoicism. Perhaps Willie Mays was a stoic: He focused on what he was good at—baseball. He was virtuous about his craft.

A baseball player decides when to take a pitch, when to make contact, and when to swing for the fences. A successful hitter will bat .300, meaning he will hit 30 percent of the time he is at bat. This low percentage reflects the difficulty of hitting a round ball at full speed with a round bat. Good hitters focus on technique, such as their stance, their grip on the bat and their read of the ball in flight. They block out the noise, the lights, the crowds and the pressure of big moments. Willie Mays for one had a consistent, smooth swing that many consider to be among the best of all time.

A 2010 profile of Mays in the New York Times describes him as “famously unanalytical, unwilling to dwell on the unpleasant and a steadfast sidestepper of controversy, Mays remains wary of potentially loaded questions.”

An old lawyer once told me that he had been practicing law for 40 years, but he never lost a case. He did, however, “come in second many times.” Like a batter at bat, a lawyer must make decisions. The challenge for a lawyer is to make the right decision more often than not.

For example, in my practice as a legal services attorney, I’m forced to make decisions about who I will represent and how much work I will put into their case. These triage decisions can have dramatic impacts on the lives of clients. And as a manager of a legal services office, my decisions on what types cases our office will take on can impact families, neighborhoods and communities.

In A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy, William B. Irvine, a philosophy professor at Wright State University, channeled the Greek philosopher Epictetus, writing of the “dichotomy of control.” This is the idea that there are things over which we have control (our thoughts and actions) and things over which we have no control (the thoughts and actions of other people). Epictetus says of the latter, “They are nothing to me.” This focus on what is possible and what is controllable is the key to longevity and success in a career in the law.

Unfortunately for many lawyers the idea that there is anything over which we don’t have control is impossible to accept. Lawyers tend to seek control, and those who become lawyers already have this affliction. As a result, most lawyers lead lives of anxiety and stress, which they counter by seeking increasing levels of control over their work.

In my practice, I try to tune out those factors over which I have no control. I can’t control the mood, bias or disposition of a judge on any given day. I can’t control the subway delays as I travel to court. I can’t control the actions of my client or my adversary. Instead, I focus on what I understand to be the relevant law, prepare my client as best as I can, and give my best effort. Once I conclude a case, I try not to dwell on alternate outcomes or what-ifs. This enables me to move on to the next case or next issue.

Mays once said: “In order to excel, you must be completely dedicated to your chosen sport. You must also be prepared to work hard and be willing to accept constructive criticism. Without 100 percent dedication, you won’t be able to do this.” It is this awareness of the rules, the subtleties and skills that made Mays so great.

Similarly, Epictetus wrote: “It is impossible for a man to learn what he thinks he already knows.” In his Discourses, Epictetus wrote of the ideal role of a person:

“You are a citizen of the cosmos, and a part of it, and not a subordinate part, but a principal part of it. For you are capable of understanding the divine administration, and of reasoning on what follows from that. What then is the profession [epangelia] of a citizen [of the world]? To have no private gain, never to deliberate as though detached [from the whole], but to be like the hand or the foot, which, if they had reason and understood the constitution of nature, would never exercise impulse or desire, except by reference to the whole.”

As lawyers, we overvalue our judgment. We inflate our importance in a cause or a case. Although we have an ethical duty to zealously advocate for our clients, we believe that we are acting in our client’s best interest even when we are clearly acting to aggrandize or enrich ourselves. Also, our legal education tends to favor a classical, rules-based approach to decision making.

Still, there seems to be room for a broader, stoic approach to exercising legal judgment. As noted by Angela Burton, political science professor at the University of Southern Mississippi, “Given the prevalence of influences other than rights, powers and obligations derived from formal legal rules, the notion that lawyer’s judgment can be either truly ‘independent’ or ‘professional’ without reference to the potential impact of social, cultural and structural factors operating within the situation appears untenable.”

The challenge appears to be to apply rational judgment both with and without the prejudices that we bring with us as human beings, to exercise control when it counts. This is the struggle of the stoic lawyer. I hope to be more Mays and less Reyes.

NYLJ: A Series of Rare Appellate Reversal Orders, All From One Queens Justice's Courtroom


On Sept. 12, the Appellate Division, Second Department, issued an opinion reversing the conviction of Lutchman Sookdeo on gang-related assault charges. A jury found him guilty in February 2017 on a number of offenses, and the appellate panel, for its part, said it found no reason to question the jury’s wisdom based on the evidence against Sookdeo.

A new trial was needed, the panel—composed of Associate Justices John Leventhal, Jeffrey Cohen, Sylvia Hinds-Radix and Angela Iannacci—said, because the judge who handled the case, Queens Supreme Court Justice Ronald Hollie, “conducted excessive and prejudicial questioning of trial witnesses.”

Hollie, the appellate panel found, interjected during the questioning of multiple witnesses, eliciting “step-by-step details” about how Sookdeo was identified as a suspect by witnesses, and “generally created the impression that [he] was an advocate” for the prosecution.

“Under the circumstances, the court’s improper interference deprived the defendant of a fair trial, and a new trial before a different justice is warranted,” the panel said.

Appellate courts generally give lower court judges enormous deference as to how they manage their trials. Reversals of convictions are routine enough and court officials at every level—from appellate to trial courts, the federal branch down to the local—generally push back against attempts to elevate higher court reversals of lower courts as anything more than the process of justice at work.

But the appellate decision in Hollie’s case is just the latest in a series of at least four now within the last two years that follow a pattern of judicial interference at trial resulting in a reversal and remand for a new one before a different judge. The results are drawing questions from observers about the levelness of the playing field for defendants entering Hollie’s court, as well court administrators’ abilities to address reoccurring issues among the bench.

“That’s four reversals for this sort of thing in the last year and a half—that’s very unusual,” Legal Aid Society criminal appeals bureau supervising attorney Richard Joselson told the New York Law Journal.

‘It Certainly Raises Questions’

Legal Aid represented some of the defendants whose cases were sent back to the Queens court for retrial. Joselson noted that in each case, the defendant is likely sitting in an upstate prison while his or her case wends its way through the appellate process. Among these cases, that has meant at times years between conviction and the ordering of a new trial.

Beyond the reversal itself, Joselson said there are no automatic consequences for these kinds of judicial issues.

“It certainly raises questions about whether there’s really any significant incentive to alter the behavior,” he said.

There was a point at which the appellate court appeared to defer to Hollie. In 2014, an appellate panel of Associate Justices Mark Dillon, L. Priscilla Hall, Leonard Austin and Betsy Barros affirmed Davindra Jadu’s attempted robbery and grand larceny conviction. Hollie’s “participation in the proceedings did not deprive the defendant of a fair and impartial trial,” the panel found.

The panel went on to note, somewhat unusually, that “any potential prejudice to the defendant was minimized by the trial court’s instructions advising the jury that the court had no opinion concerning the case [.]”

The panel doesn’t expound on the details of Hollie’s actions at trial, making it impossible to compare that case to what followed. What is clear is that subsequent panels no longer saw deference as warranted.

In a February 2017 order, the panel composed of Associate Justices William Mastro, Leonard Austin, Robert Miller and Joseph Maltese reviewed Yushumpree Davis’ conviction on weapons charges in July 2013. Hollie was again found to have “conducted excessive and prejudicial questioning of trial witnesses,” requiring a new trial before a different judge. As was the situation in the Sookdeo appeal, the panel noted that defense counsel did not object to the questioning of witnesses by the court. The panel’s decision was reached in the “exercise of our interest of justice jurisdiction.”

Months later in June 2017, a panel of Associate Justices Austin, Maltese, Cohen and Colleen Duffy detailed how, during the trial of Dylesha Robinson that led to a jury conviction on assault and weapons charges, Hollie “exercised little or no restraint in questioning the witnesses.”

The panel quoted trial transcripts in which Hollie “redirected the inquiry and blunted the force of counsel’s attempt to impeach” a complaining witness on cross-examination, leaving the defense attorney little choice to ask, repeatedly, for the judge to stop.

“Most respectfully, may I conduct my inquiry? I would like to cross-examine my own witness,” the attorney is quoted saying to Hollie. See transcript embedded with this story.

More recently, in April, the panel composed of Associate Justices Mastro, Cohen, Sheri Roman and Sandra Sgroi again reversed a conviction, this time Christopher Hinds’ 2014 robbery conviction from 2014, ordering a new trial before a new judge. The panel found that Hollie had interjected himself into the questioning of witnesses more than 50 times, asking more than 400 questions, including during testimony provided by police officers.

‘Backward Looking’

As Legal Aid’s Joselson noted, while the appellate-level reversals have occurred over the last 18 months or so, the underlying trials range from 2012 to 2017, leaving open the possibility that other convictions in Hollie’s court still working their way through the system could face similar scrutiny.

“in this area, trial judges get a lot of leeway. It’s only when it reaches a certain point when this appellate court or any appellate court is going to intercede as they did here,” Joselson said. “It seems quiet possible that there may be additional cases that are still in the appellate pipeline that have similar issues.”

Hollie did not respond to a request for comment. His chambers directed questions about the decisions to the Office of Court Administration. In an email responding to an inquiry by the Law Journal, OCA spokesman Lucian Chalfen said the cases at issue all occurred “in a short period of time” and were “backward looking.”

“Judge Hollie is aware of the reversals and continues to sit in [a] busy criminal part in Queens County Supreme Court, a court that is at the forefront of the statewide reduction in case backlogs and trial delays,” Chalfen said.

In a response for an answer to the specific question of the court system’s ability to hold judge’s accountable, Chalfen said that judges have wide latitude and discretion in their courts.

“Remedies to their decisions are the appellate process—that have been used in these instances,” he said. “And judges do heed the rulings of those decisions.”

The Legal Aid Society Honors Seymour W. James, Jr.

 Seymour W. James, Jr.

Seymour W. James, Jr.

On Thursday, September 13th, over 150 staff and friends of The Legal Aid Society came together at the offices of Davis Polk & Wardwell LLP to celebrate the career of Seymour W. James Jr., who in June retired after 43 years of service.

Mr. James, a graduate of Brown University and the Boston University School of Law, began work at The Legal Aid Society of New York City as a staff attorney in the Kings County office of the criminal defense division in the 1970s, and ascended through the ranks to become Attorney-in-Charge of the Criminal Defense Practice in 2005 and Attorney-in-Chief in 2014. A former president of the New York State Bar Association (2012-2013), his leadership positions in esteemed legal organizations are too many to list but include: membership in the House of Delegates for the American Bar Association; Board of Directors for the Correctional Association of New York; Board of Directors for the National Legal Aid and Defender Association; membership on the New York State Justice Task Force and membership on the Independent Commission on New York City Criminal Justice and Incarceration Reform.

The evening’s program included a special video message from Chief Judge Janet DiFiore, and remarks from former Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman; Kwesi Dash, Staff Attorney with The Legal Aid Society Criminal Defense Practice and Member of the Black Attorneys at Legal Aid Caucus; S. Maquita Moody, Supervising Attorney with The Legal Aid Society Criminal Defense Practice; Jared Trujillo, Staff Attorney with The Legal Aid Society Criminal Defense Practice and Association of Legal Aid Attorneys LGBTQ Caucus Representative; Shomari Ward, Staff Attorney with The Legal Aid Society Juvenile Rights Practice and Member of the Attorneys of Color at Legal Aid Caucus; Richard J. Davis, Chair of The Legal Aid Society’s Board of Directors; and Seymour W. James, Jr.

Adriene Holder, Attorney-in-Charge of The Legal Aid Society’s Civil Practice, served as the emcee of the evening.

Special thanks to our speakers, Chief Judge Janet DiFiore, Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman, Davis Polk & Wardwell LLP, and to Mr. James for all he has done on behalf of New Yorkers in need.

During Latinx Hispanic Heritage Month The Legal Aid Society is proud to honor the contributions of the Latinx community and their extraordinary impact on our City


The national observation of Latinx and Hispanic Heritage began in 1968 as “Hispanic Heritage Week.” This commemorative week was expanded in 1988 to cover a 30 day period, September 15- 30. The day of September 15 is significant because it is the anniversary of the independence of five Latin American countries: Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua. Mexico, Chile, and Belize also celebrated their independence days on September 16, September 18, and September 21, respectively. During this month we recognize the contributions made and the vital presence of Hispanic and Latinx communities and celebrate their heritage and culture.

Every year, The Legal Aid Society recognizes Latinx Hispanic Heritage Month as a time to honor this diverse and vibrant community that makes up over 2 million people in New York City alone. Now more than ever we must advocate and protect the rights of those that are targets of racist and xenophobic attacks, resulting in destructive immigration policies, criminal profiling, and workplace abuse and discrimination. We will continue to fight to keep families together and protect the constitutional and civil rights of all New York residents. We know that what makes this city great is its flourishing diversity and the presence of the Latinx and Hispanic community. We are proud to continue our work in immigration, economic and criminal justice reform to protect and advocate for these communities.

We celebrate our Latinx and Hispanic staff and community members who have been leaders, advocates and champions of justice for their communities and many others in this City.

We will continue to celebrate our Heritage Months in distinctive ways that honor that community. This month we will be sending out information about the work we do Society-wide to serve and support Latinx and Hispanic communities.

Legal Aid Files Motion to Exonerate Brooklyn Man for Wrongful 2004 Murder Conviction




The Legal Aid Society filed a Motion to Vacate The Conviction on behalf of James Davis today in Kings County Supreme Court based on newly discovered evidence and other constitutional claims. Davis has been in prison for 14 years as a result of a 2004 conviction for murder. In 2006, Davis was found guilty of murder for the shooting death of Blake Harper at a crowded party at Brooklyn Masonic Temple. There was no physical or forensic evidence connecting Davis, then 21 years old, to the crime. The case against him rested solely on disputed eyewitness identification testimony.

“Mr. Davis’s trial attorney never investigated the case; but when we were assigned to the appeal, we discovered exculpatory evidence that clearly vindicates our client.” said Susan Epstein, Staff Attorney with the Criminal Appeals Bureau at The Legal Aid Society. “This is yet another case of a mistaken identification that has robbed a man of 14 years of his life. We call on the Brooklyn District Attorney’s Office to join us in this motion immediately, so that Mr. Davis’s nightmare can finally end.”

Davis’s Legal Aid attorneys discovered that a former girlfriend falsely told police that Davis had been involved in the shooting, and he became the only suspect. Three friends of the deceased identified him from a photo array and at a lineup.

When he was arrested, Davis told detectives that he had been at the party with his brother and some friends, but that he had gotten sick and left early after having had too much to drink. He spent the night with his then-girlfriend; and she testified on his behalf at his first trial, which resulted in a 11-to-1 vote to acquit. At Davis’s retrial, his then-girlfriend was not available to testify, and he was convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to 18 years-to-life in prison. Since his conviction in 2006, Davis and his attorneys have located several new witnesses, all of whom say they were at the party and remember that Davis had gotten ill and left before the shooting took place. They thus fully corroborate the account that Davis had provided police from the outset. In addition, two of these men witnessed the shooting and identified the possible true perpetrator as a man they knew from the neighborhood. A mug shot of this man bears a striking resemblance to Davis. Davis’s alibi witness from his first trial said she stands by her alibi testimony.

The young woman who gave Davis’s name to the police passed away in 2013. Recently, her mother came forward to say that before she died, the young woman admitted that she had made up the accusation against Davis because she was angry at him for being involved with another woman.

Finally, two of the prosecution’s three original eyewitnesses have either wavered or retracted their testimony. The third eyewitness, the deceased’s brother-in-law, is dead.

In 2013, Davis’s attorneys contacted the Office of the Kings County District Attorney, which was then headed by Charles Hynes, to ask for a re-examination of Davis’s case. In 2014, Kenneth Thompson took over as District Attorney and formed a Conviction Review Unit (“CRU”). During his 32 months in office, Thompson oversaw the exoneration of 21 people who the CRU found were wrongfully convicted. Since Thompson’s death in October 2016, Eric Gonzalez has been the District Attorney. While DA Gonzalez has pledged to continue Ken Thompson’s legacy, the pace of exonerations has slowed dramatically. In 23 months under his oversight, only three exonerations have been announced.

Over the past five years, the CRU has interviewed all of Davis’s new witnesses; and Davis’s attorneys believe that the CRU completed their investigation more than a year ago. However, the Unit has failed to move forward. Frustrated by the delay, Davis’s attorneys have now filed papers to seek a Court review of the new evidence in his case. They continue to hope that the Conviction Review Unit will join in their motion to overturn Davis’s conviction.

The Legal Aid Society Investigative Case Videos

On World Suicide Prevention Day, Legal Aid Calls on Queens DA Richard Brown to Condemn Recent Comments Made by Assistant DA James Quinn About Kalief Browder


Tina Luongo, Attorney-In-Charge of the Criminal Defense Practice at The Legal Aid Society, released the following statement today on World Suicide Prevention Day demanding that Queens District Attorney Richard Brown publicly condemn disparaging comments made by his Senior Executive Assistant District Attorney James C. Quinn about Kalief Browder at a debate last week with Council Member Rory Lancman.

In 2015, Kalief Browder died by suicide after spending three years on Rikers Island – much of that time in solitary confinement - awaiting trial for an alleged theft of a backpack. Mr. Browder’s case was ultimately dismissed.

“It shocks the conscience that Queens District Attorney Richard Brown has remained silent since last week’s debate where his deputy attempted to downplay the devastating effects that Rikers Island had on Kalief Browder. Further, it reflects a mindset of indifference towards those in our city’s jails – many of whom are detained because of unaffordable bail amounts and excessive charges levied by prosecutors – New Yorkers who are brutalized by staff, and subjected to the torture of solitary confinement, and who are struggling with depression and other mental illness.

To say that we should simply keep things the same is wrong-headed; this is not the direction this city should be moving in. James Quinn's views are outdated. He is a leader in that office, modeling behavior for other prosecutors; and he needs to be held accountable. The real question is: what is D.A. Brown going to do about it?"

The Appeal: Likely Queens DA Candidate Rory Lancman Blasts Prosecutor During Debate Over Rikers Island

Assistant District Attorney James Quinn questioned the connection between the three years Bronx teen Kalief Browder spent on Rikers pretrial, and his subsequent suicide. 

  Council Member Rory Lancman speaks at a #closeRikers rally. By George Joseph Sep 10, 2018

Council Member Rory Lancman speaks at a #closeRikers rally. By George Joseph Sep 10, 2018

The Appeal | Queens Prosecutor: Kalief Browder’s Suicide Wasn’t About Rikers
September 10th, 2018
By George Joseph

In a heated debate last week over whether New York City should close Rikers Island, Queens Assistant District Attorney James Quinn sparred with City Council Member Rory Lancman, chairperson of the council’s Committee on the Justice System, who could become Quinn’s boss in next year’s election for Queens DA. The debate highlighted the tensions between Lancman, a self-professed reformer, and an office that has been notably slow to reform.

Led by an 85-year-old incumbent who has been in power for nearly three decades, the Queens district attorney’s office is one of only two in the city (Staten Island’s is the other) that publicly opposes the slow-moving closure of Rikers. Some advocates have also questioned the plan, which aims to reduce the jail population while increasing the number of jails.

At the debate, Quinn defended his office’s stance, arguing that the city’s jail population should not be cut to what he considers an arbitrary number to fulfill demands for the jail’s closure. Quinn said he stood by his past comment that people detained at Rikers “belong in Rikers.”

Lancman disagreed. “With all due respect,” he said, “there are many policies from the Queens district attorney’s office that contribute to incarcerating poor Black and Latino people.” He pointed out that, unlike other city DA’s offices, the Queens DA has not vowed to reduce its prosecution of low-level offenses. “You cannot avoid the fact that the policies of the Queens district attorney’s office put more people in jail than ought to be.”

Lancman also criticized the Queens DA’s office for its failure to approve a conviction review unit, as the other four boroughs have done, and for its controversial plea deal practices. Under that system, Lancman argued, defendants charged with felonies are coerced into waiving their speedy trial rights.

Quinn didn’t deny that the intent of this practice is to have defendants waive their rights to a speedy trial, but justified the practice by arguing it is highly inconvenient for Queens residents to be called for a grand jury. “If they don’t waive, we have to bring people like this”—he pointed to the audience—“from all across Queens County to go into the grand jury and take a day off and testify against that defendant in order to indict him.”

But perhaps the most contentious moment of the night came when Quinn lashed out at the anti-mass incarceration movement, taking aim at the national outcry that followed the death of Kalief Browder, a Bronx teenager who spent three years in jail without trial for an alleged theft of a backpack.

While in Rikers, Browder endured beatings by guards and inmates and roughly two years of solitary confinement. In solitary, Browder attempted suicide once. After being released, Browder told The New Yorker, “I’m not all right. I’m messed up.” Six months after getting out, he tried again. Two years later, the 22-year-old took his life.

Quinn sought to minimize the role Browder’s time in jail played in his death. “Kalief Browder did not commit suicide at Rikers Island,” Quinn said, his finger wagging at the crowd. “He committed suicide two years after he got out of Rikers Island. That is a fact. Everybody knows it.”

Quinn was loudly applauded for these comments during the debate, which took place in Kew Gardens Hills, a majority white neighborhood in Queens.

In his retelling of Browder’s case, Quinn also asserted that Browder had been held on a high bail because he “went out and committed another robbery,” violating his probation for a previous incident. In fact, Browder spent three years in jail denying that he committed that robbery, and he was released in year 2013 when the charges were dropped.

In response to Quinn’s applauded comments, Lancman hit back. “I do not know what satisfaction you get by the potential fact that he killed himself two years after he was in Rikers Island,” Lancman said. “And not in Rikers Island itself.” He subsequently issued a statement via Twitter. “This moment from my debate with the Queens D.A.’s office floored me – I still haven’t gotten over it,” Lancman wrote. “No matter what you believe about Rikers Island, human decency demands that no one applaud when we discuss Kalief Browder committing suicide.”

Akeem Browder, Kalief’s brother and president of the Kalief Browder Foundation, called Quinn’s comments “disrespectful” and argued that Quinn was lying about his brother’s history in an attempt to defend Rikers. During the debate, Quinn asserted that Kalief Browder had mental health issues before his time at Rikers, a claim that Browder claimed was baseless and disrespectful. “This is 100 percent wrong,” Browder said in a phone call. “Where did he get his facts or information from?”

The Queens district attorney’s office did not respond by press time to The Appeal’s queries about Quinn’s explanation and evidence for these comments.

Findayawah Gbollie, a Legal Aid Society attorney practicing in Queens, called the comments “shameful.” “He said that he had committed another robbery, not even that he was accused of committing another robbery,” said Gbollie. “They don’t see a difference between committing a crime and being accused. So what’s even the point of having a jury, having a judicial process, if the mere accusation is equal to a crime itself?”

CNN: Why Congress may shut down Trump's war on the poor



CNN | Why Congress may shut down Trump's war on the poor
September 7th, 2018
By By Matthew Diller and Susan Welber

Welfare reform is back, together with its accompanying long-standing racial, paternalist and nativist stereotypes. Historically, these stereotypes centered on the idea that people in need are lazy and morally deficient and, therefore, responsible for their own circumstances. False stereotypes concerning low-income people often track and combine with long-standing racist conceptions of people and communities of color -- particularly women of color.

For decades, invocation of these pernicious stereotypes has effectively driven the debate about where the line should be drawn between who are the "deserving" and the "undeserving" recipients of government assistance, leading to a debate about "welfare" that is laden with coded racism. These stereotypes were successful in garnering bipartisan support for President Bill Clinton's effort to "end welfare as we know it" in 1996. Welfare reform is a perfect fit for the current political landscape where the Trump administration has set the bar for false narratives at a new cynical height and been shameless about playing on prejudice to push its agenda.

This round, the Trump administration's goal is to gut what remains of the federal social safety net: SNAP (food stamps), Medicaid, federal housing assistance and more. For many families, over the past 20 years during which welfare reform made cash welfare virtually disappear in many parts of the country, the basic nutritional and health supports provided by SNAP and Medicaid have served as the only buffer against the harshest ravages of poverty. As it is, the buffer is modest. A family of three is only eligible for a monthly maximum of about $6 for food a day per person. Federal housing assistance is extraordinarily underfunded. Only one in four families who meet eligibility requirements receives the assistance.

Congress has returned from recess, and the administration is poised to continue its attack on these critically important programs. If it is successful in rebranding them as "welfare" and in leveraging the false narratives used against welfare back in 1996, then it will succeed in destroying our thin social safety net. Close examination of the administration's claims is essential.

Held up to the light, the administration's stated rationale for cutting these programs is revealed to be a sham. The administration's Council on Economic Advisors issued a report in July declaring "mission accomplished" for the War on Poverty, citing a 3 percent poverty rate. This declaration that poverty has been eradicated is the type of bold diversion needed to avoid the political heat that would emerge from simply chopping budgets for much-needed assistance so soon after enacting massive tax cuts for the wealthy.

Just as denying the effects of climate change has played a key role in justifying the Trump administration's efforts to eviscerate regulations protecting the environment, poverty denial justifies reductions in spending on people living in poverty.

Only the data, much generated by the federal government itself, tell a different story than the council's report. The official US measure found that 12.7 percent of US residents lived in poverty in 2016, and, though at a nearly 2 percent decline from 2015, poverty among children was 18 percent -- still a stunning rate. The council's declaration that we can wrap up the War on Poverty is based upon an alternative measure that looks at consumption rather than income to conclude that the rate of poverty is at 3 percent. Even if we accept this alternative measure, it is of limited value because it includes the assistance that the administration is seeking to cut. More fundamentally, the conclusion that poverty is dead is inconsistent with other indicators of economic health, such as hunger, homelessness and lack of savings. Look no further than New York City, where almost 60,000 New Yorkers still live in homeless shelters. Trump: People take advantage of welfare system

Next, the council's report opens into the administration's push for the imposition of harsh work requirements on recipients of major forms of federal assistance. This also falls apart under scrutiny. Ostensibly, work programs are designed to move recipients into the workforce where they no longer need aid to make do. In reality, work programs rarely achieve this goal. For one, the realities of today's low-wage labor market, with a federal minimum wage of only $7.25 hour, mean that many working people are living in poverty. Indeed, most non-disabled, non-elderly recipients of SNAP and Medicaid are already working. New work requirements will not motivate employment among those who are already employed. Nor do work requirements remove barriers to work for the millions of people with disabilities who rely on these benefits. Not only is there no need for harsher work requirements, but they do nothing to help people obtain better jobs. Instead, they come with a tangle of bureaucratic requirements that effectively cut off large numbers of people even where they are working or trying to find work.

Looking beyond the rhetoric, work requirements are attractive to the administration as another opportunity to score political points using the dog whistle. For every case closed, the administration can shrink the safety net under the cover of policies that reinforce the very demonizing stereotypes that make the policy feasible in the first place. Indeed, in all likelihood, the administration is focusing on welfare reform precisely to exploit its potential as a dog whistle political issue.

Finally, there is another reason the administration's effort may not succeed. Just as many have drawn the line on immigration at family separation, there may be a willingness to draw the line at ignoring two of the most essential human needs: food and health. If work requirements on these benefits play out like those on cash welfare, SNAP and Medicaid roles will likely decline sharply. Some recipients will indeed increase their employment, but many more will lose essential food and medical care leading to hunger, disease and the potential for permanent disability.

Faced with such a bleak vision, the stereotypes that supported welfare reform in the past may not find traction. Informed by activist movements like Black Lives Matter, there is a greater acknowledgement of the role that Clinton-era policies have played in perpetuating systemic racism. The tropes of past public debates about welfare may not resonate, particularly when applied to food and healthcare. As the debate over healthcare shows, most Americans do not view the ability to go to the doctor as a luxury appropriately reserved for those with sufficient income. At root, it is hard to accept that access to food and medical care so coddles recipients that they develop an inappropriate dependency on benefits as the reference to these forms of aid as "welfare" is intended to suggest.

So far, pushback in Congress and in the courts is promising. Last June, the Senate introduced a Farm Bill that rejected the strict work requirements on SNAP that the House had passed in its bill. Still, the issue will be revisited as the final bill gets negotiated. In June, a federal court vacated the administration's approval of work requirements on Medicaid recipients in Kentucky. A similar suit was just filed challenging Medicaid work requirements in Arkansas a few weeks ago. It may just be that the weaknesses in the administration's narrative create an opening for Congress and voters to focus on the facts. In any case, we should hold off on celebrating a victory in the War on Poverty, and instead realize that the declaration of victory is actually an opening salvo in a new War on the Poor.

Legal Aid Announces Gofundme Drive to Help Families Afford Exorbitant Immigration Applications


Effort Comes in Response to Federal Government Now Routinely Denying Fee Waiver Requests From Low-income Immigrant New Yorkers

The Legal Aid Society announced a new GoFundMe campaign today to help immigrant families afford fees associated with filing certain immigration applications, which can average around $750 per person.

This effort comes in responses to the United States Citizenship and Immigration Service’s (USCIS) new posture denying fee waiver requests to low-income immigrants, even victims fleeing domestic violence.

“These application fees come at an enormous price, which for many of our clients is simply insurmountable,” said Hasan Shafiqullah, Attorney-In-Charge of the Immigration Law Unit at The Legal Aid Society. “The hurdles are even more daunting now that USCIS has begun to indiscriminately reject fee waiver requests, putting many of our clients at immediate risk. Supporting this campaign will help us fight unlawful deportation, unjust detention, and to keep families together.”

GoFundMe hyperlink:


USCIS charges filing fees for most applications. These fees can be high, and most cannot be waived: $1,760 to seek a green card through a family member, $725 for citizenship, $540 to renew a green card, $410 to renew a work permit, and $930 for a victim of a violent crime to seek relief.

For the few applications for which fees can be waived, USCIS has begun indiscriminately rejecting fee waiver requests. The federal government also appears to be on the verge of publishing new rules that would make receipt of means-tested public benefits (one of the traditional bases for seeking a fee waiver) much riskier than before.  For these reasons, Legal Aid has been helping our immigrant clients, who are all low-income, with the payment of these fees. But we need your help. 

Client Story

Afua L. came to the US on a tourist visa 2002, but for various reasons stayed here, without returning to her native Ghana. In 2007, she fell in love with a US citizen, with whom she eventually had two children.  She and her husband came to Legal Aid for help last year with a family-based petition for her to get a green card. Although our services are free, the low-income couple could not afford the filing fees charged by US Citizenship and Immigration Services: $1,760, plus an additional $200 for a medical examination. After Legal Aid paid these fees for her, she successfully completed the immigration process in July 2018, obtaining her green card and at last securing her status.