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History of the New York Criminal Bar Association as told by its Founding Member, The Honorable Robert Louis Cohen

I founded the New York Criminal Bar Association in 1972 for two primary purposes: first, to enhance the stature of defense counsel so that the defense bar would not be ignored in the decision-making process with respect to court administrative matters, such as scheduling, judicial appointment and reappointment, discovery rules, and the like; and second, to improve the professionalism of the criminal bar in terms of support by colleagues, quality of representation, training, and working conditions. It was my view that, prior to that time, the other components of the criminal defense system did not accept the criminal bar, unorganized as it was, as a respected and constructive voice in matters relating to the administration of criminal justice. Thus, there was a serious imbalance in our adversary system of justice, where the experience and perspective of the defense bar was not considered in at least that one area of our adversary system of justice.

It was my goal that the imbalance in input between prosecution and defense would be corrected, at least in part, by a vigorous New York Criminal Bar Association singularly devoted to the support of defense counsel and their manifest professional responsibilities to provide effective quality representation and ensure a fair trial. It was my goal that an organized criminal bar association would have an important voice in advocacy concerning legislation and the appointment and reappointment of judges, and provide continuing legal education, advice on professional ethics, and improve the public perception of and respect for defense counsel’s constitutional mandate to vigorously represent all persons accused of crime irrespective of the crime charged. My opinion then, and still, is that the role of defense counsel to represent all persons accused of crime was generally underappreciated, even if in the most egregious cases it was often heroic.

I gathered together as our first board of directors a devoted group of lawyers, ranging in experience and type of practice from highly experienced and well-known private practitioners to a recent graduate of the District Attorney’s Office and the trial supervisor of the New York County Legal Aid Society Criminal Defense Division. Prior to the organization of the New York Criminal Bar Association, many lawyers had to discuss such serious matters as whether to accept a plea offer, or what trial strategy to employ, in the courtrooms or in the hallways; there was no place for defense counsel and her client to speak privately about such serious matters. The late Justice Jawn Sandifer, then the Administrative Judge of the Manhattan Supreme Court, recognized the need for a private place for defense lawyers, and graciously arranged for us to occupy the office suite we still do. We should be forever grateful to him for this.

Finally, I am proud that the New York Criminal Bar Association has continued and will continue to support defense counsel in satisfying their responsibilities to ensure a fair trial for all accused – the bedrock of our criminal justice system.

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