Laying Down the Law with NYC's Corporation Counsel Zachary Carter

Mar 12, 2017

Zachary Carter is NYC's 78th Corporation Counsel.
Credit NYC Law Department for WBGO

Recently when Mayor Bill de Blasio was asked by reporters how he planned to defend the city’s law abiding undocumented immigrants from President Trump he turned to his top lawyer Zachary Carter, the city’s Corporation Counsel to explain the city’s legal strategy. WBGO’s Bob Hennelly has this one on one with Carter who also has the distinction of being the first African-American to serve as the US Attorney for New York’s Eastern District, where he prosecuted the NYPD officers who were involved with the brutal assualt of Abner Louima.

HENNELLY: What first inspired you to want to become a lawyer?

CARTER: I grew up in Washington DC. My father was a World War II vet, worked for the Federla government all of his career. He worked in the Defense Printing Plant in the Pentagon for 35 years. He and my mother were very active in the the community and voluntary public service. Either my father or my mother was president of our local civic association for thirty five years throughout all my growing up. Nobody else would take the job. They were the ones that got all the pot holes filled and the playground repaired and raised hell at my school when something was getting done. My father ultimately became president of the federation of civic associations. My mother was active in the PTA and she was president of the DC Congress of PTA and so public service came naturally for me so public service came naturally to me. I got dragged to more civic association meetings and PTA meetings when I was kid than you could  shake a stick at.

HENNELLY: Cheaper than a baby sitter?

CARTER:  Cheaper than a baby sitter and I was an only child. I was forced to be there. But I learned a lot about local community politics as a result ands it served me well. I went through public schools. Went to Cornell University from 68 to 72. It was an interesting time in terms of campus activism and participated in demonstrations there, majored in government. The demonstrations were a little bit like a lab complement to my academic studies.

HENNELLY: What is the most vivid memory of that time where you felt I am a part of something bigger than myself?

CARTER: I guess early on I remember that one of my greatest regrets was because I think I was thirteen at the time of the March on Washington, and because both my mom and dad thought that things could get ugly I wasn’t personally there for the March on Washington.

HENNELLY: For that day they found someone to sit with you?

CARTER: For that day. My mom stayed home with me and my dad was actually one of the marshals for the demonstration.

HENNELLY: That one you watched on TV?

CARTER: I watched it on TV and was struck by it as much as anybody. And when I went to Cornell there was an incident in which there was a cross burned in front of the Black Women’s Living Cooperative and students ultimately decided to stage what was intended to be a peaceful sit in demonstration.

HENNELLY: Looked pretty militant reading the clips.

CARTER: It ended up having that image, It started out as a good old fashioned sit in but then some local young men from a somewhat conservative oriented fraternity decided they were going to take the building back by force. And that just resulted in a skirmish in which they were repelled and it it just kind of elevated the seriousness and tenor of the situation and some guys decided to bring in weapons that they already owned. Ithaca is a hunting community.

HENNELLY: Joining us is Zachary Carter New York City’s Corporation Counsel. During Mayor de Blasio’s tenure and your watch has his top lawyer we have seen both a dramatic decline in the number of the controversial stop and frisk and a continued decline in homicide and violent crime. What’s the takeaway from that. Everyone who opposed this move said the city would go to hell in a hand basket and they have proven wrong.

CARTER: I am not surprised that at the level of 650,000 stops a year you were actually less effective in reducing crime than we are now when there are only 11,000 stops. Jimmy O’Neill, who I think is an extraordinary Police Commissioner already, often emphasizes the fact that a tiny fraction of New Yorkers account for a disproportionate amount of our most serious crimes. Well, our policing over the last decade wasn’t consistent with that reality. It made members of particularly of minority communities feel that the police believed that everyone was a criminal because it treated a disproportionate number of people as if they were criminal as reflected in the number of stops. Now the number of stops more reflect the notion that only a handful of our citizens are engaged in serious criminal activity.

HENNELLY: We have this huge homeless problem and you are the Mayor’s chief attorney. We know we champion our personal liberty an there is also a sense of public well being. And there is a tension in the law for that. How do you sort through all of that when an individual hasn’t done anything. I know some people get aggravated by this. I see it everyday. it is a little bit like the 70s’. I have been doing this a long time. People aren’t doing any damage to anyone. They are not hurting anyone. They are on the street. Explain some of the legal parameters we need to be sensitive too.

CARTER: It is not just a legal issue. It is a combination of a legal and a socio-economic issue and it most profoundly a mental health issue.

HENNELLY: And you advice has to factor that all in.

CARTER: That’s the reality and the law kind of bumps up against real life all the time, right . And so t he reality is when it comes to our street homelessness, which frankly there has been a lot of progress in reducing—there is a substantial number of persons that have mental health issues who are among particularly the single individuals who are very often male who are visible on the street., Our laws do not permit the involuntary removal of these people from the street unless they are dangerously mentally ill, that is unless they present a danger to themselves or someone else because at the end of the day we all have a cherished right of self-determination.

HENNELLY: What is at stake here when here the President say we are going to use local law enforcement to be immigration officers and the Secure Communities controversy?

CARTER: Well, the United States Supreme Court, interestingly under the dominance of a conservative majority has emphasized that the Federal government can not impose its policy preferences on local government. So that if there is a Federal immigration policy, for instance, they have a Federal system—they have a Federal organization ICE that is its enforcement arm. To the extent they provide resources directly to them that is the organization that should be enforcing it.

HENNELLY: And a court system of competent jurisdiction in the form of the immigration court system, So it is a whole separate thing.

CARTER: Exactly. But it is a local prerogative to determine to what extent that we support that Federal enforcement particularly when it involves law abiding undocumented persons whose only trespass is their presence in the United States without proper documentation. These are people who have become productive members of our community who have not engaged in any serious criminal offenses who are employed, who are raising children.

HENNELLY: And sometimes those children are American citizens.

CARTER: And right , sometimes the children are American citizens. MP3 ends here And as a practical matter they are documented, or not, they are as American as anyone else in reality—these people, particularly that fall into the category of the dreamers, have no recollection of living in the country from which they were brought when they were children.

HENNELLY: Great way to end it. Thanks for taking the time.

Click above to hear the interview.