The Brooklyn Eagle Chronicles the Judge’s Illustrious Career as Prosecutor, Professor, Defense Attorney, Bar President and Jurist
By Samuel Newhouse
Brooklyn Daily Eagle
JAY STREET — When Barry Kamins was just a carefree boy growing up in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Midwood in the 1950s, he savored the little pleasures like getting egg creams from the candy man’s corner store.
He walked six blocks to school and knew all his neighbors. He and his sister grew up with their mother, a homemaker, while his father owned a retail loan business in Manhattan — the sort of business that only existed before credit cards, giving people loans to buy furniture and appliances.
The young Kamins went to City Tech high school, with thoughts of becoming an engineer, before going to Columbia College, where he envisioned working as a doctor.
“That’s how young people are,” Kamins reflected. “You try a lot of different things.”
But Barry Kamins, M.D., was not to be. “The pre-med society was holding a meeting that I went to. They were showing a film about hysterectomies. The day after that, I went and joined the pre-law society,” he recalled, with his typical smile on his face.
Law was a natural fit for Kamins’ analytical mind: “There are so many strands and areas in the law and the Constitution,” he said.
Decades later, Kamins is recognized as a leading mind in New York on the subject of criminal law, renowned for decades of work as a private criminal defense attorney, bar association president and law school professor. Now, as Kamins continues his role as Administrative Judge for Criminal Matters for the Second Judicial District, supervising all criminal matters in the boroughs of Brooklyn and Staten Island, he continues to take on more responsibilities.
Just last week, on Wednesday, state Chief Administrative Judge A. Gail Prudenti appointed Kamins to be the new administrative judge for all the New York City criminal courts, effective immediately. The position has been vacant for the last three years, last held by Hon. Juanita Bing Newton.
Just another day in the life of Barry Kamins.
Yet he still enjoys the simple things in life, like taking his granddaughter to see the Smurfs movie, he recalled in a recent interview with the Brooklyn Eagle.
“Mercifully, it was not a long movie. I was not so much watching the movie as watching her watching the movie,” Kamins said.
“When I took her to see her first movie, I remember she looked up when the lights turned off and then asked, ‘Why are they turning the lights off?’ I explained that it was a normal thing to do. Then at the end of the movie, she wanted to stay until the end, to make sure they turned the lights back on.”
“It’s always been Brooklyn for me — Brooklyn has everything I need,” Justice Kamins said, when asked about how it is he has always worked and lived in the county of Kings.
“For the [Brooklyn] District Attorney’s Office, my first job, you had to live in Brooklyn. That propelled me into defense work, and our firm’s offices were nearby, so I stayed here,” said Kamins, who resided in Brooklyn Heights for many years. “Some people just have to leave their roots and go search for something, but not me. I love what I’m doing and I hope to continue doing it as long I can.”
Kamins has practiced law for over 40 years, primarily as partner at Flamshaft Levy Kamins Hirsh & Rendeiro, which has offices at 16 Court St. During that time, he also became known as a talented legal thinker and active member of the bar at the local, city and state levels.
His 2008 appointment to the judicial bench, while seen by colleagues as richly deserved, came somewhat late in his legal career.
“He was a partner in a very successful criminal defense firm for many years, so I can understand his hesitancy in becoming a member of the bench, just because he was doing some very important work over there,” said New York Court of Appeals Associate Judge Theodore T. Jones, who is himself a former Brooklyn administrative judge.
“To say he’s well respected on both sides of the criminal bar is the understatement of the year. He’s just an outstanding mind.”
Kamins was the first Brooklyn attorney to serve as president of the New York City Bar Association, having served prior to that role as president of the Brooklyn Bar Association and the Kings County Criminal Bar Association, of which he was a founding member.
“Those who seem to be surprised that he was able to move into the AJ [administrative judge] position and serve very well fail to recognize the incredible job he did as City Bar president,” Kings County District Attorney Charles “Joe” Hynes said. “For two years, he served as CEO of probably the most respected bar association in the country, and he handled that job effortlessly — so I wasn’t at all surprised [by his performance as AJ].”
Kamins said that being president of the New York City Bar, which now has 23,000 members and is the nation’s premiere local bar association, certainly assisted him in taking on his administrative duties. During his tenure there, he spoke out on issues ranging from Guantanamo Bay and federal rules of evidence to overly vague parade permit regulations and the politicized suspension of Supreme Court justices in Pakistan.
“As City Bar President, I kind of was in the spotlight,” he said. “You have to make public statements. A judge is not allowed to make public statements.”
On The Ground
Perhaps his other experiences in leadership roles are what made Kamins the type of administrative judge who is repeatedly complimented by colleagues as being evenhanded, fair and approachable.
“The judges seem to like him, notwithstanding the fact that when he came he was only a Criminal Court judge for a year,” said Kings County Criminal Bar Association President Robert Gershon of Kamins’ work as administrative judge. “Everyone seems to think he was the right man for the job. Ever since he took over, there’s been some progress — people are happy.”
Judge Kamins is likewise very proud to be part of leading Brooklyn Supreme Court, where he practiced for so many years.
“Speaking for the Criminal Term and Criminal Court, I find that I’m extremely honored to be the AJ here, because they are some of the hardest working group of professionals I have ever worked with,” Judge Kamins said. “With closing time at 4:30, it’s harder than ever to get through calendars. But we do.”
In fact, Judge Kamins had to interrupt his interview with the Eagle to send an email to court staffers officially granting them permission to extend a trial past the 4:30 p.m. deadline, so that a witness could finish testifying. Budget cuts instituted by the New York Office of Court Administration in 2011 require that all trial parts shut down at 4:30 p.m. on weekdays, except during special limited circumstances.
Judge Kamins has a knack for on-the-ground administrative work, colleagues said.
“We’ve always been lucky to have excellent administrative judges in Brooklyn, but Barry’s style brings the element of him being such a hands-on kind of guy,” said Brooklyn defense attorney Andrew Rendeiro, a former partner of Kamins at Flamshaft Levy. “Someone makes a phone call to him, there’s an issue with arraignments, well, he personally goes to arraignments. He’s been seen personally going to arraignments.”
Kamins is also in close touch with his court system counterpart on the civil side, Kings County Administrative Judge for Civil Matters Sylvia O. Hinds-Radix.
“Barry, my co-administrative judge, and I, work very well together,” Justice Hinds-Radix said. “He’s a very knowledgeable judge and has a wonderful temperament. He’s just an amazing guy.”
There’s no question that Brooklyn Supreme Court Criminal Term sees some of the nastiest trials in the nation, from countless murders and rapes to kidnappings and gang assaults.
“I try to divorce myself from the violence that you read about. It’s the same as when I was a prosecutor or a defense attorney,” Judge Kamins said. “I’m also a citizen of Kings County. You want there to be lower crime. But you try to be dispassionate. … I agree with Mayor [Michael] Bloomberg that the guns have got to come off the streets. The question is how.”
DA Hynes credited Kamins with leading the court toward more efficient operations. He said Kamins’ trial-ready program has helped establish “firm trial dates,” while other reforms have increased the rate at which trials are being heard.
“While we’ve had some exceptional AJs over the years, I think what Judge Kamins has done is just bring a level of innovation we have not seen before to the court,” Hynes said.
“Judge Kamins was also able to convince Supreme Court judges to try bench trials from the lower courts. Again, he was able to get it done in his very understated, logical way. As a result, two things have happened. There’s been some increase in bench trials, and it’s certainly encouraged these judges to be on trial with felony cases as a regular course of conduct — that’s another example of his administrative skill.”
Barron and Beyond
After graduating from Rutgers University Law School in 1969, Kamins went to work at the Kings County District Attorney’s Office under former DA Eugene Gold. During his four-year tenure there, Kamins was quickly promoted to deputy chief of the Criminal Court Bureau.
“Some of the best years of my legal practice were in the district attorney’s office,” Kamins said. “That’s where you really learn your craft. You learned what the elements of a crime were, how to draw up a complaint, how to present a case to the grand jury. That’s where I met District Attorney Joe Hynes, when he was head of the Rackets Division. You make lasting friendships.”
As a private attorney building up a practice, Kamins’ criminal defense practice was a labor of love.
“It was being on your own and not having a boss — but with that comes the anxiety of, ‘Where will the clients come from? How will we pay the mortgage? In short, how are we going to become a real legal practice?’” Kamins said.
“We were listed on the 18-B panel [of defense attorneys for indigent defendants]. And slowly, very slowly, we started getting calls. Over the years, that’s how you build a practice.”
One of Kamins’ most high-profile cases was defending a Brooklyn Supreme Court justice accused of accepting bribes, Victor Barron. Barron ultimately pled guilty, receiving a three to nine year prison sentence.
“Very, very difficult,” was how Judge Kamins described the decade-old case.
“Not only did I have to worry about the defendant, but about public opinion. There was a lot of anger and a lot of resentment from other judges, because they felt it was very demeaning to the profession,” he said. “I think they thought that the public looked at them with a loss of respect. As it turned out, he pled guilty, and went to jail, and then was released.”
DA Hynes was ready to personally prosecute that case, but said he was satisfied with the outcome and impressed by Kamins’ handling of the case.
“While we were in direct opposition in the Barron case … we never lost our friendship or relationship,” Hynes said. “And he got a very significant sentence, he got three to nine years. I think Barry is a very good advocate.”
Kamins’ calm, no-nonsense style later made him somewhat of a go-to guy for representing legal professionals accused of misconduct — especially, he said, after he became chair of the Grievance Committee for the 2nd and 11th judicial districts, which handles attorney discipline and complaints against lawyers.
“After I left that spot, some lawyers would call me to represent them,” Kamins said. “There are not a lot of lawyers who can defend other lawyers.”
Workshops & Reforms
Kamins also currently occupies twin positions of top priority to the state: he co-chairs the New York State Permanent Commission on Sentencing Reform and is special advisor to the New York State Justice Task Force on Wrongful Convictions, both of which are developing reforms from the ground up to address the most crucial shortcomings of the criminal justice system in New York. Kamins previously chaired the New York State Bar’s Task Force on Wrongful Convictions.
“The ultimate goal is to have no wrongful convictions in New York state — and to have all wrongful convictions overturned,” Kamins said. “Nobody wants that to happen. I can’t think of anything worse. We documented 53 wrongful convictions in New York — every one of them is horrible.”
“Who better than the courts to lead such an effort? Judges, prosecutors and lawyers all certainly want to get it right — everybody wants to get it right.”
Sentencing reform is also of paramount importance, he said.
“When the penal law was first written in 1967, things were a lot simpler, there were fewer types of crime,” Kamins said.
“Over the years, the Legislature has decided to add layer upon layer of different crimes, taking away a system of clear sentencing from judges,” he said. “There’s second felony offender, violent felony offender, persistent violent felon. Violent crime is one type, and non-violent crime is another type.”
Kamins wrote the book on search and seizure law — New York Search and Seizure Law, a new edition is coming out soon — and he also teaches criminal law workshops, at Brooklyn Law School in the fall and Fordham law school in the spring.
“No matter how busy I am, I always look forward to leading the criminal law course workshops,” Kamins said with a smile. “No matter how well you may think you know the law, there is always some question about an area of law or new way of looking at things that a student asks you about that can really surprise you.”
Never Out of Touch
What’s next in Kamins future? Some people think he could go even higher in the courts.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if within a few years he gets elevated to the Appellate Division or even the Court of Appeals,” Gershon said.
“Well, I would hope so,” Judge Jones said when asked if Kamins could make it to the New York Court of Appeals in Albany, which is the state’s highest court. “He certainly would be a welcome addition to any appellate court, and I hope that would be in his future.”
DA Hynes agreed: “With his vast legal experience and intellect, I would hope that the political leadership in Brooklyn would recognize that he is the kind of person that should be nominated for the state Supreme Court at least.”
Kamins, who is technically an acting Supreme Court justice, having never been elected but rather appointed to the city’s Criminal Court, declined to speculate on where his career could go, saying that he is focused on his work at hand.
But it would be inaccurate to say that Judge Kamins is busier today than ever, since he’s always had a pretty full plate. Kamins is a workaholic, the type of guy who, like clockwork, takes off one week a year for vacation in August.
“It clears your head to change the scenery a little bit,” Kamins said of his latest vacation. “I was still on my Blackberry a few times a day, of course — obviously, you can’t lose touch with the court.”