By Ben Kasper
Editor’s note: Richard C. Lewis is special counsel at Hinman, Howard and Kattell, and president elect of the New York State Bar Association. According to the bar association’s website, the organization “seeks to elevate the standards of integrity in the legal profession while cultivating the science of jurisprudence.” Lewis and Ben Kasper serve on the Editorial Committee of The Reporter.
Ben Kasper: What is your role and responsibility in your new position?
Richard Lewis: Firstly, my role as president elect is to work with the leadership in trying to achieve the goals of the organization, which are to elevate the ability of our membership to serve the legal needs of society and to provide access to justice for all. We want to eliminate the disparities that exist in our system. In addition, we want to support diversity and inclusion throughout our society, and to attempt to eliminate the divisive and vitriolic personality of our society, and by example show that disagreements should be debated, but good faith of the proponents of different points of view should be presumed.
My responsibility is to represent our organization, which is the largest voluntary bar in the United States with a membership of around 70,000 members and it is without question the most influential Bar Association in the world. It is looked to to establish legal standards and high ethical standards for its membership.
Kasper: What would you like to achieve or accomplish as president elect?
Lewis: Our goals among others is to deal with the legal issues confronting veterans and the mental health issues that seem to be plaguing our society, as well as the issues of homelessness that exist throughout our country. The Bar Association is concerned with regulations that cause needless inefficiencies in the practice, which in turn cause escalating legal fees. The end result is that more and more people are priced out of the justice system, and there is a diminishment in access to justice, which is major concern of the bar. Keep in mind that there is no insurance, Medicare or Medicaid to cover most of these legal costs. In addition, court-assigned attorneys, who are to represent the economically disadvantaged, are underpaid to the point where now attorneys are forced to refuse assignments because they cannot afford to operate at a loss.
Kasper: Do you bring Jewish teachings and values to any of these legal disputes?
Lewis: Religious and cultural teachings and values, like anyone’s cultural influences, always enter into my thought processes and are the lens through which we view the world. That having been said, we definitely need to approach legal issues in an objective fashion. While the Bible or the Torah or the Koran may not be in full agreement with the Constitution, our job is to work within our rule of law, which starts with the United States Constitution. It is also necessary to understand that lawyers have to represent both sides, just as physicians may have to administer medical care to persons that they find morally reprehensible.
Kasper: The New York State Bar Association has promoted civic education in the past. How effective has that been, and should that program be evaluated?
Lewis: The New York State Bar Association does have multiple outstanding programs to foster and promote civic education, including our youth education committee. We would like to increase our involvement in teaching civic education. Sadly, a lot of young people do not understand our system of government and only seem to read the headlines on social media. Clearly, there has to be an understanding, not only amongst school-aged children, but amongst adults, as to the value of our system as established under the United States Constitution.
Kasper: In a recent Gallup poll, 25 percent of respondents said they had a great or quite a lot of confidence in the U.S. Supreme Court. Do you have an opinion regarding the appropriate role of the Supreme Court? Does the Court have a role in promoting equal opportunity and social justice?
Lewis: The Supreme Court is essential to our democracy and its role is defined in the U.S. Constitution, as is the role of the executive and legislative branches. The Court changes over time, and there is never a time when a significant number of people may disagree with a decision. The Court does not make decisions based on popularity, but rather upon interpretation of the Constitution. While the Court purportedly is unpopular right now, keep in mind, a recent New York Times poll indicated that President [Joe] Biden only has a 33 percent approval rating. This all speaks to divisiveness in our society and a lack of trust in all parts of our government, regardless of party. While we may not always like the results, the Supreme Court is the bedrock of our system of government and without it we would not have democracy.
Kasper: There has been a spike in violent crime and mass shootings. Obvious examples are the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT; the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, PA; and the supermarket in Buffalo, NY, just to name a few. Justice Clarence Thomas, in the recent decision involving New York state gun laws, wrote: “Because the State of New York issues public-carry licenses only when an applicant demonstrates a special need for self-defense, we conclude that the state’s licensing regime violates the Constitution.” Was this ruling a rational, judicial decision?
Lewis: The question of the Second Amendment has always been hotly contested. The determination in the Bruen decision is that the New York concealed carry permit has been based on subjective evaluations, which are not consistent. The Supreme Court wishes to make this more objective, but that does not foreclose the ability of the states to monitor where guns can be carried within reason. Public buildings, schools, subways and other places are areas where handguns may be banned. There will also continue to be background checks, fingerprinting and mental health evaluations before a permit is offered. The New York State Bar Association will confer with legislators and the governor to help address the issues.
Kasper: This past session of the U.S. Supreme Court has been one of the most historic in the past 50 years. We have witnessed an expansion of school prayer, an elimination of restrictions on guns, curbs on environmental regulation and the reversal of Roe vs. Wade. Halachah (observant Jewish law) states that abortion is not permitted except in cases of danger to the life of the mother. Do you have a position on the recent Supreme Court decision?
Lewis: Before people condemn a decision, they should read it rather than just reading what the headlines say. Clearly, we can agree or disagree, but it should be remembered that the determination of the Supreme Court is the law of the land and always has been. The New York State Bar respects the Court even when we may be in disagreement. We also respect our state and federal legislative branches, and should vote for candidates that will speak to our concerns.