Judge Randolph Jackson, NYS Supreme Court (ret.)
Recently retired Supreme Court Judge Randolph Jackson is a man on a mission to open himself to the future and work only on the things that are a joy to him. We spoke with Judge Jackson in his childhood home in Park Slope where he gave us two books he had written. Both were slender volumes and we learned later that both were of the kind you pick it up and not put it down until the end. “Black People in the Bible” is made up entirely of quotes from the Bible with Judge Jackson’s commentary on them, it reveals the Bible as an allegorical history of early African people. He writes “The Old testament, which is the story of the Hebrew people, is inescapably drawn to the Egyptians and Ethiopians, who were both peoples of color.” The second book “How to Get a Fair Trial by Jury” is a very funny and deadly serious look at the art and science of picking the jury in a criminal case.
Jackson says his 24 years on the bench were spent going to the job every morning and now he will pick and choose how he spends his time and the cases he will work on as “Of Counsel” with the law firm of Okun Oddo and Babat, where he will specialize in arbitration and mediation and as resident expert, be able to select the cases he wants to be involved with. The “Attorney’s Comments” in the New York Judge Review, read like references for his position: “Excellent, fantastic judicial temperament.” “Even tempered and fair to all parties.” “Extremely patient and relaxed.” Below are excerpts from our interview with Judge Jackson. The entire interview can be found at ww.ourtimepress.com.
OTP: Where did you grow up?
Judge Randolph Jackson (ret.): Brooklyn. Born, raised, lived, worked, die. Brooklyn to the core. Stuyvesant High School, NYU, Washington Square College, Brooklyn Law School.
Prior to Stuyvesant I attended P.S. 9, J.H.S. 210, J.H.S. 51 and then Stuyvesant.
Concord Baptist Church was a major influence on me. Reverend Dr. Gardner C. Taylor was the pastor. Concord was a mega-church before we knew there was such a thing as a mega-church.
OTP: you heard him preach every Sunday?
Jackson: Yes I did, he was there 42 years (1948-1990), he’s one month older than Nelson Mandela.
OTP: I understand he was a master orator.
Jackson: The “Dean of Black Preachers.”
OTP: What did you learn from him?
Jackson: His sermons were four-dimensional. They were rooted in the Scriptures, but wrapped in today’s headlines. He had an appeal to the emotional, but also to reasoning and logic and he was in great demand around the country and around the world.
OTP: Any church clubs?
Randolph Jackson: I grew up in the church. Sunday school all the way through. My Sunday school teacher was my 81-year-old godmother who was just at my retirement party, Deaconess Mary J. Head. I was involved in the usual church activities. One of the things was that you could never fail in the church family. Because whatever you did, however you performed, they always told you, you did a great job. It was a very supportive environment and gave you the impetus to move forward.
OTP: So you went directly into law?
Jackson: No, what happened was I graduated from NYU in 1965 with a bachelor’s degree in psychology and I vowed I’d never go to another classroom again because it took me five years, four colleges and three summers to get my degree.
I got a job with the largest advertising agency in the world, J. Walter Thompson, in the Graybar Building at 420 Lexington Avenue. I was sitting in my cubicle some months on the job and asked myself “How can I become president of this company?” I didn’t have any influence, I wasn’t good at kissing up to people, so the chances are, I’m never going to become president of this company. And one day a thought ran through my head, “Gee, I wish I was back in school.” Where did that come from! Out of the blue, “I wish I was back in school.”
So, three months later, I was back in law school. I had spent the summer after graduation working on a political campaign, someone was running for office, and after a while I noticed that everybody important in the campaign was a lawyer. And the candidate was a lawyer. So I said, “Maybe there’s something to this law thing. I think I’ll try it.”
I applied to Brooklyn Law School, took the LSATs. I attended Brooklyn Law School at night because I didn’t want to live off my folks any longer. So I kept my day job, enrolled in law school and I loved it and never looked back.
OTP: Did you stay at J. Walter…what was your day job?
Jackson: No, I didn’t stay at J. Walter Thompson, what happened was that in order to make the dead, dry law books come alive, I thought it best if I could take a job in the legal field as what you now call a paralegal, at that time we called it a law clerk, working in a law office.
After a year, I got another job as a law clerk in President Richard Nixon’s Wall Street law firm. I stayed there until I graduated from law school.
OTP: What was that firm’s name?
Jackson: Nixon, Munsch, Alexander and Mitchell. The Mitchell was John Mitchell, who became attorney general. Mitchell was a genius municipal bond lawyer. He had his own firm which he merged with the Nixon firm. He became Nixon’s partner and when Nixon went to Washington he took John Mitchell with him, to his doom.
OTP: So you were a clerk there, what kinds of things did you do?
Jackson: Running errands, filing papers, going to court in a clerical capacity.
OTP: And at night you went to school?
Jackson: Yes, 6:15pm-9:05pm, Brooklyn Law School. This was New York in the 1960’s. It was a segregated city inside a city that I never knew about. We were in 20 Broad Street, the New York Stock Exchange Building. There were no Blacks working in the stock exchange. The law firm was a hundred-years-old and never had a Black lawyer. The secretaries, 9-5, were all-white. And even the cleaning ladies were all-white in 1966 when I became a paralegal at President Richard Nixon’s Wall Street law firm. I literally had nobody to talk to. After about six months they hired a fellow named Cecil to run the Xerox machine, so I finally had somebody to talk to.
I went into their corporate department and that’s where I learned how money is made in America.
OTP: How is that? I thought you work hard, punch a clock and you’re good.
Jackson: Right. Listen, the public will buy anything. The public is very gullible. So what is done is this. Someone forms a corporation, with the intention of searching for oil. They put out a prospectus, a statement about what they intend to do. They haven’t done anything, they have nothing, but they have hopes and dreams and aspirations of becoming rich. So they file that offering statement with the SEC in Washington, DC. They sell shares to the public at $10 a share and the public will buy it because the public will buy anything. They hope to find oil and based on their hopes, the public buys tens of thousands of shares of this new company that has nothing at $10.00/share.
After the required legal waiting period the founders of the company, who bought their shares at a dollar, sell those shares on the open market. They now have cashed in and become millionaires and they never did find oil and the public is stuck. That hot tip of $10 that was going to go to a hundred? It goes back down to a dollar. So the public has lost its money, but the founders of the corporation have become millionaires overnight.
OTP: And they just didn’t find any oil.
Jackson: Exactly. It’s perfectly legal. Perfectly legal and the public falls for it time and time and time again. So this particular Wall Street firm I was working for was in the business, among others, of representing people who were starting up corporations. At that time minorities were forced into the litigation department. Go to court, go to court, go to court. And the few women that they had were pigeonholed into trusts and estates and the minorities, Jews, Blacks, whatever, were pigeonholed into litigation. But that’s not the engine that drives the law firm. The engine that drives the law firm is the corporate department. So I went on the corporate side.
OTP: So you went into litigation and saw how America works, corporations were formed and people made money out of their dreams. What did that mean to you?
Jackson: Well, I was able to take that information about how America works back with me when I went back to the ghetto. What I decided to do, I wanted to help my people. In order for me to stay on Wall Street I’d have to become a different person. The big lunches. I had my first visit to a club as a member of the Nixon law firm. That lifestyle was new to me. I thought I’d lose my connection to my roots and would not remain grounded if I stayed there.
So what I decided to do was come back to Brooklyn where I was born and raised, and open up a storefront law office to help the people. So I left Wall Street, came back to Brooklyn and I was introduced to the first elected Black judge in Brooklyn, Louis S. Flag, Jr. At the time he was a retired civil court judge. He had a home and office on Decatur Street. He offered me free space in his office for a year. And I began practicing for the people. Everything and everybody walked into my office and I began to learn about people in that capacity of general law practice. I did everything and learned a great deal.
OTP: What kind of cases came in?
Jackson: First case was a divorce case. A young Latino fellow came in, and he wanted a divorce and I sat and talked with him and after a while he mentioned he was on welfare. All of a sudden the dreams that I had of instant riches flew right out the window.
So here I am trying to raise two children and the first client is on welfare. It was very interesting. You learn so much in the street just being with the people.
OTP: You did criminal cases, too?
Jackson: Yes, criminal cases. How about the kid who mugged a white woman on the Brooklyn Bridge. Young man, college-bound, accepted to college, ready to go to college in the fall, that summer he gets the idea to mug a white woman on the Brooklyn Bridge. And he gets caught. And the woman he mugged works in a law firm and knows the legal area. She’s not about to let go of this thing. So he’s in serious trouble this young man, his college plans are about to be demolished. So we postpone and drag the case around for a while and finally I walk into court at 120 Schermerhorn Street and the judge is George M. Fleary. Jr. George M. Fleary, Jr. was of Caribbean heritage, part Haitian and part Jamaican. He was a staunch liberal, a man ahead of his time. He had what we call “Fleary’s Rules”, which were not the law of the time but are the law of today. For example, no one can be evicted at Christmas time. That was his personal rule. Another, “The maximum rent a landlord can collect is what welfare will pay.” These are “Fleary’s Rules.”
So George Fleary is sitting in Criminal Court on that day and the Assistant DA was Clarence Norman, Jr.
OTP: Oh really? So how did it go?
Jackson: Well Clarence Norman, Jr. was someone I had met when he was in law school and I had been helpful a bit, and to make a long story short, I walked my boy out of Criminal Court that day, straight into college.
OTP: He must have been eternally grateful.
Jackson: I don’t know his name or what happened to him, but at least he was free of that mistake.
OTP: When you were on the bench, did you ever think, I wish I had this case?”
Jackson: One of the things that came to mind when I was in Criminal Court was “There but for the grace of God go I.” Because before you sentence someone you receive a pre-sentencing report that tells you something about the home life and the background. And invariably, they have poor home lives. Very rarely do they come from intact family situations. Always there is someone else raising them, not the mother or the father. It’s sad to see. And I used to think to myself, if this fellow had my mother he wouldn’t be here and if I had his, I might be in his shoes. So it occasioned a lot of compassion in me, because I don’t think anybody is born a criminal, but people become criminals due to circumstances oftentimes beyond their control.
OTP: With that experience and background, what do you see as some of the ways to deal with crime?
Jackson: Crime is big business. There is a lot of money in crime if you are in the business of building prisons, or selling supplies to prisons. There are entire towns whose economies were dependent on Army bases. When the bases were closed, those towns built prisons. Now there are entire towns with economies based on prisons. There are Republican State Senators in upstate New York who vie with each other to bring in prisons. A lot of people have their livelihood based on somebody going to jail.
Start with the police officer on the beat, we have 25,000 in New York City, approximately. How many of those cops would be out of a job if we had no crime tomorrow? How many assistant district attorneys and prosecutors would be out of a job?
How many Legal Aid lawyers and defense counsels would be out of work if there were no crime? How many judges sitting in the Criminal Court house would be out of work if there were no crime? How many probation officers, court reporters, court clerks would be out of work if there were no crime? It goes on and on. A lot of people depend upon crime for their livelihood. So crime is big business.
When I was sitting in the criminal part of the court, I would have eighty cases a week and if I had one white defendant, it was a lot. In a whole week.
Jackson: Look at who gets arrested. I found out, this may be a controversial statement but I’ll make it anyway, they don’t send undercover cops into white neighborhoods. They don’t send undercover drug cops into white neighborhoods. They send them into Black and Latino neighborhoods.
So it’s Blacks and Latinos overwhelmingly who get arrested for violating the Rockefeller Drug Laws. And it’s Blacks and Latinos who go to jail in huge numbers. In numbers disproportionate to their drug usage in the general population. That’s the story.
OTP: Going back into representation, how is that different than being on the bench?
Jackson: Being a judge is a job. It’s a good job, but it’s a job. It’s the difference between a job and a joy. A job is something you do to make money. To feed your family. A joy is something you do for the love of it. That you would do if you didn’t get paid. Mathematicians and musicians have joys. They would work for nothing. All artists, they would work for nothing because creative juices flow out of them and they love what they do. When was the last time you saw a musician retire? Some things you don’t retire from because it’s a joy. A job is something you can’t wait to retire from. So what I’ve done is transitioned myself from having an excellent job to the point where I now have a joy.
OTP: So what is the joy part you are looking forward to?
Jackson: Number one, I’m an empowerment consultant. If you give a hungry man a fish, he’ll be hungry again tomorrow. If you teach him how to fish, he’ll never be hungry again. An empowerment consultant teaches people how to fish. I’m a life coach. A life coach teaches people how to get the most out of what God gave them. I’m a patron of the arts, I love art. I don’t paint but I enjoy looking at paintings and I collect art. I’m an author. I’m a Bible teacher. I love to talk about our contributions to biblical history. So those are some of the things I’m interested in doing. I’m also going to be an arbitrator and a mediator.
OTP: Will you be doing criminal, or malpractice or other areas?
Jackson: Yes, I will be “Of counsel” to a midtown law firm.
OTP: Of counsel means…?
Jackson: “Of counsel” means senior consultant, a resident expert is basically what it is. We have a firm of 8 people overall off of 5th Avenue (Okun Oddo & Babat). It’s a full-service law firm. I’ll be giving advice to the lawyers. I’ll be giving advice to the clients and I’ll be working on whatever special projects come into the office that appeal to me. Again, because it’s a joy, not a job and I don’t have to do it for the money, I can pick and choose. I can take cases that are interesting to me, I can try to help somebody on a pro-bono capacity, and we’ll take it from there. Whatever comes through the door. I can make my own choices.
OTP: That’s a good place to be. When you were young did you think you’d be at this point?
Jackson: Every lawyer wants to be a judge and every judge wants to be a Supreme Court judge. I climbed the ladder. Housing Court, Criminal Court and then Supreme Court. It was not a level-paying playing field but I learned how to run uphill and score. I had originally planned to retire at 76, but instead I retired at 67. One of the things that happens is if you stand still, you’re losing ground because everything in the universe is in motion. The idea is don’t stand still but move in harmony with the cosmos.
Last year, my daughter graduated from law school and she was immediately making forty thousand a year more than I was. With zero experience, she was making $40,000 a year more than her father with his 40 years experience. This was a strong motivating factor for me to change directions. I had thought I was quite well. I was smug and self-assured. So over a period of a year and a half, I came to the decision that I should change direction and strike out on my own and do something different.
OTP: I see you’ve visited Egypt.
Jackson: I love visiting five thousand year-old cultures because I think they have a lot to offer. I’ve been to Egypt and China. My first trip out of the country was to Africa. The Jews have Jerusalem as their holy land. The Muslims have Mecca. For people of color, Egypt is our holy land. Egypt is mentioned in the Bible over 250 times. The greatest Hebrew of them all, Moses, was born and raised in Africa, in the Palace of the King as the grandson of the king in Egypt. The first Passover took place in Africa. There is lots of Black history in Bible history. The story of the Hebrews could not be told without Egypt figuring prominently. Whenever the Hebrew got in trouble, they ran to Egypt for help. When Herod wanted to kill Jesus, his family took him to Egypt to hide.
OTP: Among people who looked like him.
OTP: That logic escapes a lot of folks.
Jackson: They don’t want to know it. But it’s our job to put the truth in the streets.
OTP: What will you be doing?
Jackson: I have a personality and an ethic that will shape the formless void that is out there. There are some people, wherever you put them, they will build a city.
I’m going to be myself in a different circumstance. I’m still going to have trouble setting and collecting fees.
OTP: Any chance that you would go back to the church. Become Reverend Jackson?
Jackson: I thought about that years ago. I was advised to stick to what I have been doing. I have preached, I was a deacon for 14 years, I’ve done 43 weddings including my own daughter.
Reverend Herbert Daughtry did the same thing. I was his lawyer.
OTP: Was this when he was doing the civil disobedience?
Jackson: Absolutely. That was very exciting. Percy Sutton used to say that his greatest legal experience was representing Malcolm X. My greatest legal experience was representing Reverend Daughtry. Because you had the feeling you’re working for a righteous cause. The money wasn’t it. It was the cause. I really enjoyed it.
OTP: What kinds of things will you be looking forward to?
Jackson: Righting wrongs and addressing injustices. And I think there is a lot of that going on. I think there will be a lot of work to do.
OTP: There is a lot of work, how do you not be swamped by it?
Jackson: You have to be discriminatory. Whatever civil cases may come along. People get hurt and have to be made whole again.
OTP: What advice would you give to family members who suddenly find themselves with a member who’s arrested and the lawyer wants to charge $5,000 just to get them out of jail.
Jackson: Let Legal Aid handle it or a court-appointed attorney. They do just as good a job or better. And they don’t charge extortionate fees.
OTP: So they don’t have to go the $5,000 fee route?
Jackson: Why? Does the person care about you? If you say you can’t afford a lawyer, the court will appoint one for you. I know tons of people who have spent tons of money. Big money for big-named lawyers who did not do a good job for them. The private attorney who charges you a lot and who you give your life savings to, is not going to do a better job than the court-appointed attorney. And they might care more about you.
OTP: You always see on television where someone speaking of legal aid or court-appointed attorney, “Oh, we can do better than that.”
Jackson: Pure propaganda. It’s like the funeral business. Someone dies, they’ll charge you $18,000 for a coffin if they can.
Not only that, the private lawyer you hired is going to turn around and sue you for the balance of the fee. Guaranteed. You sign up to pay $20,000 and you only have seventeen, they’ll sue you for the other three thousand. Guaranteed. You’re a paycheck.
OTP: You need lawyers all the time. One of the reasons you need so many lawyers for documents, is that they set the rules. The first thing they say to the other party is you’ve got to get a lawyer.
Jackson: They say that one lawyer in a town starves. Two lawyers and they both get rich. Look, when evaluating a lawyer you need five things. You need a lawyer who’s capable, can they do the job. Need a lawyer who is reliable, will they show and do what they say they’ll do. Are they honest or will they extort you or charge excessive fees. You need a lawyer who is influential and finally, you need a lawyer who cares about you as a human being, as opposed to seeing you as a paycheck. A lawyer committed to you is worth more than the lawyer with a big reputation.
In my life I’ve learned to run uphill. Remember the deck is stacked against you if you’re Black in America. As H. Rap Brown said, “If you’re Black in America and you’re not paranoid, you’re crazy.” The deck continues to be stacked against us but we have to learn to run uphill and score.