By Chief City Court Judge Craig D. Hannah
The Hon. James A.W. McLeod retires at the end of this year after an illustrious career. He has faithfully served with distinction for 32 years as a Confidential Law Clerk, an Assistant and Deputy County Attorney, an Erie County Support Magistrate, a Buffalo City Court Judge and as an Acting Erie County Court Judge. As a civil rights advocate, there are not many leadership organizations within the African-American Community in which he has not been actively involved. As an advocate for Human rights and fairness, he fought for employment opportunities for minorities and women within our Court System and throughout Western New York .
As a judge, he presided over Buffalo’s Adolescent Diversion Part – which was the precursor of the Youth Part created by the Raise the Age Initiative.
Judge McLeod is a direct descendant of Mary McLeod Bethune, one of the most important Black educators, civil and women’s rights leaders and government officials of the twentieth century and founder of Bethune-Cookman College.
I recently had the honor to sit down with His Honor and talk about his illustrious career.
Q & A With Judge James A.W. McLeod
Can you give us your Background?
I was born in Utica, New York to a hardworking, blue collar family. My mother was a nurse [in fact she was one of the first black nurses in the area] and father was a factory worker. I attribute my work ethic to the fine example they provided me. It was their tenacity that inspired me to do my best in life; I don’t think a had a choice; I has to work hard and succeed.
Where did you go school?
I attended public school. After graduation, I attended Herkimer Community College in Herkimer, New York and then Fredonia College earned my BA [degree]. While at Fredonia, the Chair of my Political Science Department who was friends with the Dean of the Law School [Jacob Hyman] suggested I apply to UB Law. I was going to school in Massachusetts but I got into UB. I came here and stayed here.
Dean Hyman and his wife were very active in civil rights and [career] opportunities for minori-ties?
It is my understanding that Dean Hyman was very instrumental with increasing minority pres-ence in the law school and his wife worked at the St. Augustine Center on Fillmore Avenue. They were way ahead of their time. When I was [at UB] I think that it had the largest minority presence in the school’s history; largely due to the efforts of Dean Hyman.
How many [African-Americans] were in your class?
I would say about 30.
Really? When I went 20 years later, we had considerably less.
Yes, the numbers were amazing. Some of my classmates were Judge Hugh Scott, Lester Sconiers, Terrence McKelvey, David Hampton, Loren Lobin, Alexander Hunter, Charles Davis and Julian Johnson. Rose Sconiers and Yvonne Lewis were a couple years ahead. There were two minority professors; but all the professors showed concern for all students. One of the minori-ty Professor’s was Danny Holley. His brother Kenny Holley and wife Sharon owned Harambee Book Store on Fillmore Street in Buffalo. I remember Robert Fleming as an outstanding Professor. He taught Civil Procedure Law. Although there were no Black administrators, we had a strong presence and felt welcomed on campus. We were a close-knit group. We had study groups; many were hosted by Rose and Lester Sconiers. All the minority students worked hard and successfully graduated.
Why do you think the number of African American law students are dwindling?
There needs to be a more conscious effort to draw students of color and the Black leadership in the community needs to play a role. Networking needs to also take place, ie. meeting for din-ner or lunch. It’s important that “we” fortify” each other. David Edmunds started a monthly meeting for us to get together which is open to Blacks in the legal community. The word needs to spread so that more lawyers of color join in. Just today, I met a Black ADA in Buffalo City Court and had no idea who he was. We have got to do better with networking. Jurists of Color have to do better with working together as well. We should have a strong relationship with each other.I remember a time when African American lawyers and some jurists would meet for lunch at Dubois’ [Marotto’s]. Heads would turn; some people would ask… “what’s going on?” It was a meeting for sharing and strengthening. We have to get back to those times.
You were involved in [student government] the Black Student Union or BLSA while in school?
The Black Student Union which from that came the Black Law Student Association (BLSA). The Association allowed for us to make our “voice” heard.
Your First Job After Law school?
I was the first Black outside of New York City to serve as a Law Clerk for the New York State Court System. I was law clerk to the Hon. Samuel L. Green. But, my first job after law school was working at a Matrimonial Firm. Thomas Labin hired me. The firm was situated on Kensington Avenue, where Attorney Frank Pratcher’s office is now located. I think I would have made lots of money. If I had continued to practice matrimonial law, I would be a rich man. (Laugh).
You were very close to [retired Supreme Court Justice] Vincent Doyle?
My second job came after receiving a call from Mark Mahoney, a classmate from law school said that the Doyle law firm was seeking to hire an African American. I applied and got the job! That is where I met Vincent Doyle who became a dear friend. I learned much from both jobs. I also did a lot in the community.
Tell us about your community involvement?
The Urban League was the very first organization I involved myself. I volunteered time serving as their counsel. I was also very active with the SCLC, NAACP and St. Augustine Center. I worked with Dan Acker, Frank Mesiah, Arthur O. Eve, William Gaiter, Leroy Coles, Mr. Pitts and many others. They were movers and shakers in our community. I assisted Mr. Eve when he ran for Mayor. I am a founding member of the Black Leadership Forum which spearheaded from the 22 Caliber Killings. Ed Cosgrove was the District Attorney at the time. The Forum worked very hard to find the 22 Caliber Killer. It was a scary time for Black men. The Forum was also instrumental in remembering Dr. King’s legacy. One year, we planned a March downtown. A racist-counter group decided to have a March in opposition. We took the racist group to Federal Court, where I served as the lead counsel arguing our case before Justice Elfvin. That was an experience. I learned a great deal at that level.
Any other civic activities?
I also worked with Arlee Daniels and Rev. Giles, community activist, to combat gang violence in the City. We met at the St. John’s Church. We brought gang members to the table to discuss non-violent tactics. From that project we started the first GED program in the inner city. That GED program still exists today. I served on and continue to serve on hospital boards, community organization boards, religious boards and the Red Cross board. I helped start a youth program in Niagara Falls, which is no longer in existence. There is still a need. I would love to see more efforts surround our youth. Everyone has a responsibility to give back. Youth need to know the struggles of those that came before them. I am proud to say that the Kaleida Health facility located in the Town Gardens Plaza on William and Jefferson named the building in my name… Judge James A.W. McLeod Clinic. I want to always impact the community in a positive way.
You were the first to preside over the Adolescent Diversion Part?
At one point in my career, I worked in the County Attorney’s office. I was appointed by Dennis Gorski. I handled JD and PINs cases along with some Civil matters. That was my first introduction to juvenile delinquent matters. It’s unfortunate, but youth appear in our courts… daily. The Adolescent Diversion Part (ADP) was needed. The court was a measure to reduce young people with having criminal records for minor offenses that would affect them for the rest of their life. I worked with Principals of schools, community leaders and community organiza-tions to create programs that would positively impact individuals appearing before my court. I was hard on the youth, trying to instill in them to never get involved in criminal activity. I want them to learn from their mistakes. I am a no-nonsense judge, especially when it pertains to youth.
So You are tough on defendants?
First, I’m fair.Justice is blind, just like Lady Justice wearing the blindfold.All people should be treated with respect.All jurists need to uphold such values. I believe all courtrooms should be reflective of the persons appearing before them. Courtroom decorum should be exhibited from staff and lawyers. Again, respecting everyone and their roles. Some people feel that I am too hard on defendants. I would like to think that I really care and hope that my judicial influ-ence pushes them to make better choices.
Do you see the ADP Court as the model that led to Raise the Age?
Upstate New York has been a Change Agent for many of our courts. Judge Kaye, before her transition appreciated and applauded Upstate’s theory and concepts for new innovative justice. Yes, I would say that ADP is an integral part of Raise the Age. I am proud to have served as the ADP Judge and making a difference in the judicial process.
Judge, you also worked in the County Attorney’s Office?
Yes, I worked there shortly after Bill Hamilton left. I was the 2nd Assistant in Charge. I was over the Family Court and Civil Divisions. I was elevated after Patrick NeMoyer, when he moved on to U.S. Attorney.
Tell us about the Western New York Coalition of Blacks in the Courts?
The Coalition started over 25 years ago. Myself and other Blacks in the Courts felt a need to do something about increasing our presence. At that time, there was Sharon Thomas, Cina La-Grange, Clarence Charity, Sandra Scruggs, Margaret Ward, Jaime Lewis, Judge Green and several Black lawyers. We began meeting and discussing matters on hiring practices. We worked with the Administrative Judge and the District Office. Today, I see the efforts, but there is still more to do. Diversity matters. Buffalo City Court is the 2nd largest court in the State. When I visit New York City Courts, diversity is present. We especially need to do better with bringing in Black men. Oliver Young was hired from the initiatives of the Coalition. There is the Franklin Williams Commission which works to ensure diversity. However, I see much of their efforts driven down state. The Coalition continues to be instrumental in organizing the Court’s annual Martin Luther King, Jr. program. I would hope that in my retirement that the Coalition continues. So often, efforts as this cease when folks do not come forward to lead.
Do you think my generation [Generation X] and Millennials are doing their part to continue the struggle or are ‘Staying Woke’?
Honestly, I do not think they know the struggles of the generations prior. I believe most feel entitled and exhibit privileged behavior. A re-awakening needs to happen. Back-in-the-day people worked together and took nothing for granted. I’ve asked young defendants if they know of any iconic, historical figures and they do not have an answer. When we don’t know our past, we’re doomed to repeat it!
Did you always want to serve as a jurist?
When I first considered running for Judge, I was told “you can’t do that.” That didn’t sit well with me… I was taken aback from that statement and ran for Judge. I had lots of support from family and friends. Sharon Thomas was a great supporter as well as Arthur O. Eve. My campaign [team] worked hard and I won; without Party support. Serving as Judge has been a wonderful journey. I have been blessed to serve on the bench with some outstanding judges. Judges like Judge Ogden, a jurist who continues to fight to make a difference and yourself [Judge Hannah]. Judge Green and Judge Sconiers. Judge Sims was the first trail blazer, she opened the door.
Please share some final comments.
I am truly blessed to have been able to serve as Judge. I have had wonderful staff and worked with some of the best lawyers. I plan on being visible even though I will be retired.I have never been a person to feel that I’ve got mine, you better get yours.The work continues and not just in January for Dr. King’s commemoration or February for Black History month. “We” still have to make our voices heard and do the right thing. Some think of me as a “trouble maker’ [but] I beg to differ. I’m a person who has had to straddle both sides of the fence. Everyone deserves a [level] playing field and to have the same opportunity as everyone else. Taken from my relative Mary McLeod Bethune’s words, “If we accept and acquiesce in the face of discrimination, we accept the responsibility ourselves. We should, therefore, protest openly everything… that smacks of discrimination or slander.” Thank you for the opportunity to share.