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Legal profession is obligated to cure injustices within its power, Gerstman says

By Christina Couto

Calling her the “best and the brightest among all of us in New York State and nationwide,” Associate Judge of the Court of Appeals Eugene M. Fahey ceremoniously swore in Sharon Stern Gerstman of Buffalo as the State Bar’s 120th president on June 17.

“To be a leader in the New York State Bar Association and become president is to be a leader of the national legal profession,” said Fahey, also of Buffalo, during the event, held during the House of Delegates meeting in Cooperstown.

Gerstman, speaking after being sworn in, said she believes that, “as bar leaders, lawyers and members of a civilized society, we have an obligation to cure whatever injustices are within our power to cure.”

She recalled “how lucky” she is to have been “born free, an American, to parents who value education and public service, and for a girl growing up in the ’50s and ’60s, to have been taught that it was good to be smart, even in math and science.”

She said she has had the good fortune of teachers who opened doors for her, deans who took a chance on her and law firms, judges and bar leaders who mentored and welcomed her.

“I look at the trajectory that brought me to this place as a wife, a mother, a mother-in-law and a grandmother—and at a wonderful professional home at Magavern Magavern and Grimm—and now as president of this amazing bar association.”

And then quipping, “in the words of Ira Gershwin, ‘who could ask for anything more?’ Alright, maybe straight hair. But really, how incredibly lucky am I?”

By comparison, Gerstman said that most men and women who go through the criminal justice system have not had the same luck. “Most of them have not had the best teachers or schools or neighborhoods or families to encourage them to be the best that they could be.”

She said that many wind up in jail because “they are too poor to make bail, because they could not convince the prosecutor to give them a break or because they went before a jury who thought they were guilty of something.”

“I grew up with the concept of “tikkun olam,“ repairing the world,” Gerstman said. “I think we can make a difference in the lives of the citizens of this state who may have made a misstep or two, including children in our schools.”

Gerstman said she has appointed a newly formed task force on the school-to-prison pipeline, co-chaired by members John Gross and Sheila Gaddis, to study the effect of zero-tolerance on schools and the students who may have, with suspensions, expulsions or even arrests, been deprived of opportunities to build productive lives.

She is also asking the task force to suggest best practices within school districts to determine whatever discipline is imposed is the least restrictive necessary.

Gerstman has also asked the Criminal Justice Section to address issues including privatization of prisons, bail reform and rehabilitation and recidivism.

“But our advocacy and our repairing the world is not limited to our criminal justice system,” Gerstman said.

“I have asked every substantive section and committee to study how they can make their branch of law fairer and better and to turn that study into advocacy,” Gerstman said. “I have tried to carry this message to all our members, especially our younger members, who embrace so many of these causes.”

Gerstman said that “we have the structure within the New York state Bar Association to allow them to work on any of these issues and I continue to invite all of our members to get involved.”

She also pledged to continue her quest to visit all 61 county bar associations in the state. She visited more than 30 during her term as president-elect.

“The lawyers of this state need both their county bars and the State Bar to fight for their profession and to make them better lawyers.”