ALBANY — For a guy who went to law school mainly to kill time while deciding what he really wanted to do, A. Thomas Levin is an unlikely president of the New York State Bar Association — even more so since he began his bar activism as an opponent to the statewide organization.
Yet if the 60-year-old Long Island municipal lawyer brings a quirky background to the position, he also brings breadth of experience.
‘I’ve worked in the courts, I’ve worked in the private sector, I’ve worked in the public sector and I’ve worked in the Legislature,’ said Mr. Levin of Meyer Suozzi English & Klein in Mineola.
On June 1, Mr. Levin took over as president of the State Bar — the first president from Nassau County in 127 years — and immediately began promoting an aggressive agenda. His first act was to appoint a commission to enhance diversity within the organization and especially in the leadership.
He intends to keep pushing for even higher assigned counsel rates and to establish a substantive statewide civil legal services program. Mr. Levin is interested in pursuing the unbundling of legal services and, like seemingly everyone else in the legal community these days, has serious concerns over judicial independence in an era of increased political participation by judicial candidates.
Mr. Levin, who lives just down the street from the Rockville Centre home where he grew up, is the son of an attorney. But if the father’s vocation steered the son toward the practice of law, it was late in coming.
After earning a philosophy degree from Brown University, Mr. Levin enrolled in New York University School of Law with no intention of actually becoming a lawyer.
‘By process of elimination, I decided law school would be good training for a lot of different things and some day I’d figure out what I really wanted to do,’ he said.
It took about a month at NYU to figure out he really wanted to be a lawyer, and Mr. Levin stuck around long enough to earn both a J.D. (1967) and LL.M (1968).
A job he landed after his second year in law school largely determined his career path. He spent the summer working for the Nassau County Attorney’s Office, and discovered a fascination with municipal law that continues to this day. About 60 percent of his practice concentrates on municipal law.
‘You get to do everything — constitutional law, contracts, real property, torts and even criminal prosecutions as a village prosecutor,’ Mr. Levin said. ‘The variety is what attracts me.’
After law school, Mr. Levin initially worked in the New York City Corporation Counsel. He later got a job with the Nassau County Attorney’s Office, left that post for a stint as law clerk to Supreme Court Justice Bertram Harnett and went into private practice in 1972. In the mid-1970s, he served as counsel to the Assembly Judiciary Committee. He remains village attorney and special counsel to several Long Island municipalities.
Mr. Levin has long been active in the Nassau County Bar Association, and in that capacity bumped heads with the State Bar over then-Chief Judge Sol Wachtler’s threat to mandate pro bono.
‘I and a lot of other local bar leaders thought the State Bar was not reacting properly, so we pushed the bar in the direction to support the voluntary pro bono program,’ Mr. Levin said.
That was the start of an involvement that continued to grow until he was selected as president. As chairman of the policy-making House of Delegates and president-elect, Mr Levin co-chaired the President’s Committee on Access to Justice. He has also been active in several committees, as well as the Electronic Communications Task Force and a special panel formed to study multi-disciplinary practice. He succeeds Lorraine Power Tharp of Whiteman Osterman & Hanna in Albany as president.
Assigned Counsel Fees
Mr. Levin said one of the major issues of his tenure is the same as the major issue during Ms. Tharp’s reign — assigned counsel fees.
Although the rates were finally increased this year after a 17-year drought, they are still too low, Mr. Levin said. He observed that while assigned counsel in the New York courts as of Jan. 1 will receive $75-per-hour for felonies and Family Court work and $60 for misdemeanors, the federal government still pays $90 an hour, a rate Mr. Levin calls a ‘reasonable target.’ He said the recent and long-awaited raise is simply one step forward on a continuing path.
‘We are no where near done with this,’ Mr. Levin said.
The new president is also eager to establish a statewide, coordinated civil justice program to address the needs of the poor. ‘New York does not have a stellar record on that,’ he said. ‘We would like to see the state set up a real civil justice fund and actually put some money into it.’
During Mr. Levin’s term, the State Bar will most likely need to come to grips with an issue of increasing concern, the so-called ‘unbundling’ of legal services, which would allow attorneys of record to restrict their involvement to a particular issue or issues in a case.
‘We are trying to find ways to get the rules changed so lawyers can handle pieces of cases without being responsible for the entire case,’ Mr. Levin said. ‘That would allow people to hire lawyers only for the advice they need. Now, if you appear as attorney of record in civil litigation, you are in it for the duration unless the client or court lets you out. We would like to set up a procedure where a client could hire you to do a particular part of the case, but not necessarily all of it, but recognize there is a legitimate concern of whether you can adequately represent a client piecemeal.’
Of more immediate concern is judicial independence in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Republican Party of Minnesota v. White, 536 U.S. 765 (2002), and Northern District Judge David N. Hurd’s ruling in Spargo v. New York State Commission on Judicial Conduct, 244 F.Supp 2d 72 (2003).
The Supreme Court ruling struck down a rule restricting the speech rights of judicial candidates. Judge Hurd’s decision invalidated as unconstitutionally vague speech-limiting provisions in the New York Code of Judicial Conduct. Mr. Levin said the State Bar will file an amicus brief with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit this week urging it to overturn Judge Hurd.
‘We think it is important for judicial integrity and public confidence in the judicial system that judges not be involved in politics,’ Mr. Levin said, adding that he supports the association’s traditional preference for merit selection over elections. ‘Judges are in a unique category. When you get involved in running for the bench you have to give up some of your political rights because you are no longer an advocate for your personal views, but for the law as established by the Legislature and interpreted by the higher courts.’
Mr. Levin has a wife, Iris, and two daughters, Amy and Karen.