As it confronts prosecutorial offices and government agencies that are generally well resourced, the organization needs to secure its lifeline to fulfill its many functions — representing New Yorkers in court, advancing social policy, litigating civil rights issues, and advocating for disadvantaged people, she said.
“All it takes to become the client of Legal Aid Society is a mere allegation. That’s it,” Carter said. “In order to represent everyone, the way that the Constitution requires and New Yorkers deserve, we have to be adequately funded.”
Carter spoke with Law360 Pulse about the most pressing issues facing New Yorkers, her racial background, and the path forward for The Legal Aid Society. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
You are still transitioning into this new role. How has it been so far? Have you already taken up any official duties?
Not officially, but I certainly have been meeting with the team, talking to the team, still getting to know people. Definitely, I have made myself available to speak with the leadership team, do interviews such as this, and get to know people and get to know the issues. I’m still learning more about The Legal Aid Society. I’ve been following this great organization for many years. [I began] to peek behind the curtain a little bit and [started] to read up a little bit more and meet the great people who are behind the work.
Tell me about your career. How did you end up becoming The Legal Aid Society’s CEO and attorney-in-chief?
I’m a public defender to my core. I only went to law school to become a public defender, and had the wonderful opportunity of working as a line attorney for eight years in Seattle, in King County, Washington, at The Defender Association. I handled everything from misdemeanor thefts to homicide cases, and [it] really gave me the opportunity to feed my passion to advocate on behalf of low-income people from disenfranchised and marginalized communities. What that allowed me to do was also manage a team of people and certainly work with clients and directly impacted folks in their families. About eight years in, I was given the opportunity to become a misdemeanor practice director, which allowed me to effectuate systemic change on behalf of everyone charged with a misdemeanor, not just the folks that were on my particular docket.
From there, I had the opportunity to go to the ACLU national office where I was a senior staff attorney, and litigated issues around bail reform and making sure that low-income people had a right to a public defender at the bail hearing, and did that in red, blue and purple states. [I had] the opportunity to manage, not just the legal team, but [also] pro bono co-counsel, coalition folks on the ground, community organizations, and certainly work with directly impacted people to identify them as plaintiffs in our class action lawsuits.
All of that together has really brought me to this point. Bringing all the different tools from my tool belt into this work makes it the next step in my journey.
How do you describe the role The Legal Society plays?
The Legal Aid Society is not just the largest and the oldest legal aid and public defender office in the country, but it’s the only organization doing what it does at its scale.
Employment, housing issues, eviction issues, foster care, youth interrogation without a lawyer, fighting back against what’s happening at [Rikers Island jail complex], bail reform, unifying young clients with their relatives, or immigration work — all of the work that’s being done at The Legal Aid Society sets a standard in the country because of the sheer scale that it’s being done at in New York, in all of the boroughs.
I can tell you as somebody who does this work nationally: all other states are watching what happens in New York. New York really is ground zero for these issues around the country.
It’s an important time right now. We know that we are in the middle of our civil rights movement — of my lifetime, certainly — where we are seeing direct attacks on our civil rights and civil liberties, where we are seeing punishment being meted out either civilly or criminally for folks using their rights. What’s happening in Albany, with the rollbacks on any progress that has been made, is something that sets a standard for the rest of the country.
I want to continue to build on [our] great local influence, national profile [and] reputation around the country to show how the work could be done and should be done, quite honestly.
For example, New York’s historic right-to-counsel law is one of the most effective policies that the city has ever made law. We must preserve this program and ensure that courts calendar cases in a way that guarantees low-income people have a right to an attorney and have a meaningful opportunity to be heard at their hearings. This is something that sets a standard around the country.
I also think [about] what’s happening at Rikers, and the work that The Legal Aid Society has done in bringing litigation around that issue. Rikers, unfortunately, is not the only jail or facility run by the Department of Corrections that is abysmal, and has people dying. There are other jails and facilities around the country where people are also dying in. So, again, [we want to] be setting the standard for the country to see what can be done, how to do it.
What priorities specifically do you have for The Legal Aid Society?
We have a lot of issues. There are a lot of priorities. Organizational funding fairness is at the top because that is the foundation for all other issues and areas that we need to continue representing New Yorkers on. My role as the attorney and chief and CEO will be to ensure that our folks continue to have the resources they need to be able to do this work.
We have to be adequately funded, in order to protect people who are presumed innocent under the law, in a state where lawmakers, elected officials, appointed officials, are doubling down on the criminalization of mental health, drug misuse and poverty and giving more money to law enforcement to continue to surveil and investigate low-income New Yorkers. And it does not matter if a person is charged with theft or murder. Every single New Yorker accused of a crime deserves to have the representation that Legal Aid Society provides and wants to provide.
That is really primarily priority number one: making sure that all of our staff, whether they just started with us and they’re brand new, or whether they’re senior attorneys; whether they are investigators, paralegals, social workers, every single role that is played at the Legal Aid Society, [they] must be adequately funded for the great work and necessary work that they’re doing.
It is unacceptable to me that anyone in The Legal Aid Society could be arrested today and then qualify and be eligible for our services. It is unacceptable to me that we have staff that are working second jobs as Uber drivers, delivery drivers, etc. This is a line of work that not everyone can do, nor do they want to do, but it is absolutely crucial in a democracy and for the criminal legal system to operate in any way shape, or form remotely close to fairness and justice.
I also want to build on the great resources that we already have with our wonderful allies and partners in the pro bono community. I want to expand our funding sources as well.
What policy and litigation issues are you planning to focus on?
[I plan on] working to support our staff and attorneys on specific policy and litigation issues around pre-trial, helping our staff defend the historic reforms that were ushered in New York just three years ago. Legal Aid must be positioned to continue to fight back against those rollbacks and we must be able to do that in the near and in the long-term future.
It is unfortunate that lawmakers have seen the pushback and were not prepared for it. Anytime progress is made, the empire always strikes back. It’s designed to oppress, control and surveil. Lawmakers should have been prepared for that. They were not, so we have to continue to fight to hold the line and to keep moving reforms forward so we don’t end up again expanding mass incarceration, especially for folks who have not been convicted of a crime that are simply in jail because they’re too poor to buy their freedom.
I want to continue working and advocating for folks around police issues, and making sure that our clients are protected from outdated and racially disparate policing practices that have led to the increased caging of our Black and Latinx New Yorkers over crimes of poverty, drug misuse, mental health, and want to be able to affirmatively push for more policies and practices that actually provide community-based solutions that have been proven to work. We can show that it works in New York.
We want to make sure that the [housing] courts are working with us to calendar cases, to the point where low-income New Yorkers are actually being represented at those hearings. We know that a large percentage of folks, 85% or so, who are represented by an attorney don’t lose their home. That is extremely important.
We want to make sure that young people who are picked up by the police, arrested — that before they’re interrogated they have an attorney representing them and present, making the decision on whether that young person should even be speaking to the police or not. It is astonishing, quite honestly, that anyone who has children or anyone who has been a child would be okay with having law enforcement interrogate a child without having a lawyer present. A parent is not a lawyer, so an actual attorney [should be] present to represent and protect that child.
You are the first Black woman and the first Asian American woman to lead The Legal Aid Society. What does your racial background mean to you? And what do you think it means to your organization’s clients?
It is so personal to me to take on this role. Half-Black, half-Chinese, I am so proud of both sides of my family, proud of my heritage on both sides. It’s not just being Black. My father raised me and my sister. We appear to be Black women, and not necessarily Asian — some people can tell or what have you. We’re Black and female and have to work two times as hard to prove ourselves, but the reality is I’m also Chinese, and I’m very proud of my Chinese background.
I believe [that] to have someone who looks like the folks that come from the communities in which we serve is really important.
I’ve been a lawyer for 16 years. I’ve been Black and Chinese my whole life in this country. I understand and appreciate the levels of systemic, overt and implicit racism and bias that permeates all of our institutions in this country, civil, criminal, etc. I certainly have experienced it.
Very early on in my career, I remember going into court to cover a calendar [hearing] and having the clerks and different court staff show up and assume that I was there for a case — and did not know that I was the attorney.
I have had experiences where I was an attorney handling a felony trial caseload and there was one other Black female who was also carrying a felony caseload, and prosecutors, judges, interpreters would confuse us.
Especially when talking to a prosecutor, they would say, “Twyla, I sent you this email. You haven’t responded yet?” And I’m like, “No, you didn’t. I don’t have an email. I’m not even on that case.” And then once it hits them, you can see it visibly on their face, where they’re like, “Oh my gosh, I’m so sorry.” Because they have mistaken me for the other Black public defender.
Having those experiences allows me to, hopefully, bring in the issues of what it feels like to be a person of color in any of these institutions. While I’m extremely privileged, I do hope that having someone who looks like other people’s children, their relatives, brings a level of comfort, if nothing else. I am there to do my best to bring those issues to the forefront, to represent what I believe to be some of those underlying issues, and also to inspire other young women of color, young people of color to pursue their dreams.
As somebody who went to a community college, state college, state law school; who worked full-time the entire way; who did not go to an Ivy League school, didn’t do a clerkship, didn’t do any of that — [when] you just put your head down and work hard, and you follow your passion, it will work out. Hopefully that serves as some level of inspiration. I hope it serves as some level of support and inspiration for the staff and the attorneys at The Legal Aid Society.
It is truly an honor to take on this role at this time, with my particular background. It’s just a monumental moment that is very special for me, and it means a lot.
Are there any aspects of The Legal Aid Society that you wish were different, that maybe you aim at changing?
At this time, no. My official start date is in August. I certainly want to take the time to get to know people listen and learn before making any suggestions or working with folks on where we might be able to implement some changes.
All organizations and all corporations can certainly benefit from having a fresh set of eyes. But it is absolutely my priority to work with the leadership team, the board, the union, and our staff and attorneys on whatever changes are going to come about in the future. They’ve all been wonderful and gracious and very welcoming and open.
I certainly expect that there are going to be some areas that we can build upon and improve but definitely want to give myself the time to get started.
What do you think is the biggest threat to democracy today?
I think the biggest threat to democracy is complacency on behalf of we the people. We are the ones who are going to protect democracy. You don’t need to have high education, a great title, or a lot of money to stay engaged at the local and national level, in whatever jurisdiction you’re in, holding accountable, elected and appointed officials to what they say and what they do.
We see again a time when democracy is being attacked, and all of our rights are being attacked at the same time, and I think the fact that we the people are not staying engaged and we’re becoming more complacent is probably the biggest threat to democracy. It’s not about elected officials saying the right thing and being honest. It’s about us as voters, as people not being engaged, not holding them accountable.
We have a duty to make sure that due process rights are protected. And making sure that the presumption of innocence actually means something for low-income people as well as rich people.
Did you grow up in New York?
I did not actually, I’m a military brat. I was born in Wichita Falls, Texas. I’ve lived in Germany. My sister was born in Japan. I’ve lived in Washington state, I’ve lived in Arizona. Seattle is where my family is located and where I consider home, because that’s where I lived the longest. I lived in New York for four wonderful years when I worked at the ACLU national office. I’m very happy to be moving back at the end of June, and really looking forward to entrenching myself in the community there.
All Access is a series of discussions with leaders in the access to justice field. Questions and answers have been edited for length and clarity.
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–Editing by Katherine Rautenberg.