Represent NYC host, Julie Walker welcomes outgoing Chairman of Manhattan Community Board 12, Shahabuddeen (Shah) Ally to discuss his recent election win and what he has planned after becoming the first Muslim male Judge in New York State.
*Aired on December 16th, 2018*
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Represent NYC: Shah Ally’s Big Plans for New York
Aired: December 19th 2018
Host: Julie Walker
This transcription was done from an audio recording and therefore the accuracy of the transcript may be impacted. Before citation, please review the entire video.
Julie Walker: Hello, and welcome to Represent NYC on Manhattan Neighborhood Network. I'm Julie Walker. On November 6th, New Yorkers cast their votes for state and local offices, from governor to attorney general, including local judicial offices, judges in New York City's supreme and civil court. The civil court of the city of New York has jurisdiction over civil cases involving amounts up to $25,000 and other civil matters referred to it by the state supreme court.
Julie Walker: Shah Ally has been a frequent host of this show, Represent NYC, while he was the chairman of Community Board 12. He joins us now as judge elect for the New York City Civil Court of New York County. Shah, why did you want to become a judge? Why did you run for this office?
Shah Ally: Thank you, Julie. It's interesting, because at birth, I knew I was going to be a judge. That sounds, "Is this guy for real?" 40 years ago, 42 years ago, but I was named after a judge. My first name is Shahabuddeen, and my father said to my mother when I was born that, "He looks like a judge, so I'm going to name him after ..." And I was born in Guyana, named after one of the famous judges in Guyana at the time, when Guyana became a free country from British rule, was a judge named Mohammed Shahabuddeen. He loved the name Shahabuddeen, so he said, "This boy will be a judge."
Shah Ally: That wasn't the real reason why. I want to be a judge, because I think that I believe in public service. I believe that judged are public servants, and that, as a lawyer of many years practicing in our trial courts, that judges are to be beholden to our communities, beholden to our people, and if I truly believe that, then I need to experience and bring my skill set to the bench as well.
Julie Walker: What was the process of running for judge like? Because of course, some judges are appointed and others actually have to run for office, and on the ballet, there is a line for voting for judges. Of course, you had the support of the Democratic Party, but how difficult was it?
Shah Ally: It was very difficult, and if you imagine that the role, that the job is so important, that the process should be important and difficult as well. We want to make sure that you have the most qualified individuals in that position, because once it gets to the ballet, a voter might say, "I'm not sure who this person is," or we don't get the top billing like the governor or other races, but there's a certain level of a confidence that when a judge's name hits the ballet, then there's been vetting done of that person that does not exist for any other elected office.
Shah Ally: The hard work to get to that point to being on the ballet starts at the beginning of the year, maybe February or March. To earn the Democratic Party's support in Manhattan, there is an application process, and there are independent screening committees, independent of any politics, that are made up of bar associations, civic groups, and you apply through a paperwork and application process. And then you're vetted. You're vetted by 25 different groups, and your goal is to be found qualified through those groups.
Shah Ally: And then you move on to the political side of it, and that is hopefully getting the party support, being found qualified. This year, which was a special year because of the number of vacancies, New York County had three separate screening committees. The goal of any candidate is to be found highly qualified just of one. One's enough, and this year, the first time one candidate was found highly qualified out of all three screening committees, and that was myself. I wound up hitting the trifecta, and I was very happy about that.
Julie Walker: Well, do you think the process of becoming a judge should change in any way? Are you still satisfied with the running for office and the appointment process?
Shah Ally: I think that there is no pure, perfect system. In New York City, judges to the family court or criminal court or interim civil courts are appointed by the mayor. The governor has appointments to court of claims. Some of the critiques I've heard about the elected side is that there's too much politics, and that you might not get the most qualified candidates. I'm not sure how, what that matrix looks like, because having gone through the elected side, I tell you that the individuals, the prospective candidates that I was working with are very qualified.
Shah Ally: You have a pool of qualified people trying to be deemed the most qualified. 25 different bar association groups, there's no free pass when it comes to be qualified for a judge. No one gives you a free pass, so when that person's on the ballot, to me it's that that person's gone through severe vetting where there's a level of confidence that that person is qualified. I don't think there's a perfect system. I think they both serve certain needs.
Julie Walker: Do you think the public is paying a lot more attention now, given what went on in Washington with the Supreme Court? I know it's completely separate, but at the same time, are people paying more attention now?
Shah Ally: I think people are paying more attention. I know that the confirmation hearings that were broadcast nationally, internationally, brought a spotlight to something very important, and that was for the country's most highest court. But it does touch on something that resonates even to the lowest court at the state level. That is judicial temperament. What does our judges look like? In terms of their temperament or demeanor, what are we looking for?
Shah Ally: I know that comment came up quite often. That same question is asked of someone like myself and my level, which there's no comparison between United States Supreme Court and New York County Civil Court, but the same question is asked: What is your judicial temperament? This season, being a candidate was very interesting, because I took phone calls from strangers who are voters who found me on the internet through my law office and called me.
Shah Ally: One fellow called me and said, "I'm a prospective voter and I have a question. Do you have the time?" And I said, "Absolutely." Because you should be doing your homework just for any office, top of the ticket or all the way down. You should be doing your homework, and let me answer whatever questions you might have. I have material on the internet, but there's no substitute for that personal interaction.
Shah Ally: On election day, I was running unopposed, but I was on the corner of the sidewalk, handing out literature and meeting people because I think it was that important, that at some point, I hope that if you ever see me, you would know enough about me. Unlike other elected office, for civil court's a 10 year term. There isn't that old tagline of, "If Shah's not doing his work, let's vote the bum out." You've got to wait a decade for that. I would probably say just as important as governor, people should have been looking in to me and saying, "Is he qualified?"
Julie Walker: You mention temperament. Do you have a vision of the type of judge you want to be?
Shah Ally: Yes. I tell people this, and the type of judge I will be carries over experiences through my entire practice, my entire law practice, my civic practice. I chair a local community board in Manhattan, and throughout the vetting process, I've been asked, "Do you have the temperament to be on the bench?" One of my favorite lines was this: "Go to a community board meeting, chair a community board meeting, and if you can make it out that night in one piece, you have all the temperament you'll need for your entire judicial career."
Shah Ally: I want people, when they walk in to my courtroom to say this, "I don't think Judge Ally's going to give me what I want or tip the scale my way, but boy did he give me a fair shot, that I was heard and that he gave me ..." The one thing anyone ever wants is a fair shot, so the temperament is this: I as the judge will help to move problems to solutions. That's my job, not to engage in a fight, not to be another member of this fight, but what is your issue and can I help to solve it. That's the temperament I hope to impart.
Julie Walker: And civil court is what we might see on TV on some of the popular judge shows, right? It's cases under $25,000 where people come in with what kinds of issues?
Shah Ally: Contract disputes, money being loaned. It's interesting, because I call the civil courts the people's courts. It's party initiated, which ... There is a show called People's Court.
Julie Walker: Exactly, exactly.
Shah Ally: Which draws it's cases from a civil court docket, so it's interested that I'd say that when you want to talk about the court of the people, the court where it's free to come in and initiate an action that you think is meritorious, it's our civil courts, it's our family courts. Criminal court's a little bit different, but these are the type of cases. If there's a breach of contract, I'm going to sue you in civil court.
Shah Ally: A lot of my work was done in family court, which is civil in itself, and most of it was down through relationships that, unfortunately, fall apart. And someone will tell me, "Well, I'm owed X number of dollars. I loaned this person money." Or, "I have a TV that I want to get back." And I say, "Well, you know what you have to do? You have to go to civil court." And that's where it is.
Shah Ally: I think everyone who's watching this show or anyone who's ever interested, the courts are open. You should go and see, because the people's courts belong to the people, and as a judge, I would encourage everyone to use our court system. I can't tell you what I'm going to do once you get there, but I will tell you that the doors are open. Come on in. But contract disputes, certain levels of commercial disputes are handled in civil court, mostly around money.
Julie Walker: Let's talk about justice reform. You were a big advocate. You probably will continue to be a big advocate for people as a lawyer and as a community board participant, so what would you like to see in terms of justice reform in the next 10 years?
Shah Ally: I'm mindful of the different hats that I'm going to be wearing. As an advocate, as a community board chair, I put on that advocacy hat. As the judge, you have to keep it down the middle and fair, so when I'm wearing that hat, I have to do right by the position and do justice to the position, so not necessarily advocating on the judicial side. I will follow the law, and if the law dictates what I need to do, then I need to do it.
Shah Ally: With that being said, there are soft boundaries. If I have that discretion, if the discretion is mine, then you try to look at that human aspect to things. Am I going to set unreasonable bail when I know the person before me is destitute and cannot meet this bail? Am I going to hold people to a unrealistic standard that I probably can't hold myself to? I find that to be a level of hypocrisy where, if I'm making certain mistakes, then I have to believe that the litigants before me are making the same mistakes.
Shah Ally: Would I ask someone to be understanding? Absolutely. If someone's asking me to be understanding, I would certainly give that courtesy. I've been in the court system for 18 years, and I've seen our court system move in a direction that's correct. As a jurist, there's two things. If things are working well, then it takes a lot of work to continue to make it work well, and if things are not working well, it takes a lot of work to make sure that they are working well. There's no shortage of hard work.
Shah Ally: In terms of justice reform, I really want to see our court systems reflect the people, reflect our community. I am a big believer that our jurists have to come from our communities. They have to know what are the issues facing our communities? We're supposed to be impartial, and we are, and remove ourselves from it, but we cannot be devoid of it either.
Shah Ally: We have to understand that housing is a real issue in our communities. We have to understand that earning a living wage is a real issue. Sometimes transportation is a real issue, so if someone shows up late to court and they say, "The trains," I'm not going to be quick to say, "I don't believe that." Because I probably was late at some point or another, so those are the kind of reforms, common sense reforms.
Julie Walker: You're leaving your position as president of the community board in December. How are you looking back on what you've accomplished and the things that were "left undone?"
Shah Ally: I've been committee board chair now and through December for three years, and someone asked me the question recently, and it's something I never really thought about, because I didn't think it was something for me to answer, but they asked about a legacy. I thought, "Wow, to be asked a question about legacy is a big question." I never thought I would be in the position of having a legacy, but I guess I do.
Shah Ally: I think the legacy is ... I'll give you two answers. The broader answer is this: Helping to inspire people come off the sidelines and get involved. Community boards have always been looked at as a body of complaining and a waste of time and really not functioning well. One of the biggest compliments I was ever given, which I think it was a left-handed insult, was "You seem someone sane and you're on the community board, so many I could." And I thought, "Thank you, maybe."
Shah Ally: To help energize people to get off the sideline, to say. "If he can do it, he has a career, he has a family, and he's respective of our time. Maybe I can do it as well." I've had people reach out to me who I thought would never be involved. That's the biggest legacy, inspiring others to get involve.
Shah Ally: One of the actual tangible legacies that I think it hearing a community concern and taking action for me, where it actually worked. The first month of my first term, neighbors came to be and said, "Look, our local supermarket in Washington Heights, the Associated Supermarket's closing due to commercial rent protection, a big issue throughout the city. What can you do to help us? We need this supermarket for our seniors, for our families. We'll be a food desert."
Shah Ally: I thought, "Well, that's a very important issue. We need to save it. It's not a federal level issue. It's not an immigration issue. These are things that matter to people. If you take away their supermarket, they could be fighting for high level things, but where do I get my milk? That's what matters to me. That's what really affects people, so we started a very aggressive letter writing campaign. We started a signature campaign. We reached out to the developers. We reached out to all of our elected officials to say, "Help us save the store."
Shah Ally: But it wasn't just because of a store. It was what the people wanted. It was what the people needed, and we thought we could actually do it. I have to tell you that there was only two communities in the entire city that was able to help save a store like this and help beat back a big box retailer from coming in, and Washington Heights is one of those now. That will always be my favorite story to tell, and it wasn't because we saved their store. It's because the community came together.
Shah Ally: The question that I would ask someone, the question was, "Our store's closing. What are we going to do?" And I would turn it around, "What do you think we should be doing?" And the answers came from the people, so this was really a people's win, and I'm always happy about that.
Julie Walker: And what is left to be done? What are things that you wish could've been done while you were chairing the community board?
Shah Ally: There's going to be a lot of changes happening. Inwood, which is part of our district, just went through a rezoning, so we're going to see a lot of changes. Some of it will be immediate in terms of immediate development. Others will take time to realize, and that was something that I would like to see, because the board opposed the rezoning. Eventually it was passed with city council and signed by the mayor, so there's a lot of vigilance left.
Shah Ally: We are going to be forming an Inwood rezoning task force, and that's something that I would like to have seen, so that we keep everyone honest. We keep the developers honest. We keep the city honest to say, "We opposed this. It went through, but it doesn't mean we're done with the fight."
Julie Walker: Something else that was on the ballot, the mayoral charter revision commission questions, right? One of them that won overwhelming support from the public is term limits for community board members. What do you think about that? What were your feelings on that?
Shah Ally: As community board chair, Manhattan Community Board 12 passed a resolution opposing the charter revision that called for term limits. I know it passed overwhelmingly. I'm not sure it was a function of knowledgeable voters thinking that community board members should be term limited. I like to say that our general voting population understands community boards. I'm not sure if that is the case.
Shah Ally: I think term limits sounds like something that should happen. I'm not sure if it was a ballot positioning where yes is first and no is not, people just go down the line. But if we had given it a pause to think about what this actually means, I think you're gutting the real power of community boards. I've been chair for three years. I've been on the board for five total, so I've been chair more than I have been just a member.
Shah Ally: When I came in, I had certain institutional, certain management skills. I know how to run boards. I'd run several boards. I knew how to run a board. What I was missing was institutional knowledge, so when I was trying to enact what I thought was new policies, some longstanding members were like, "You know, we tried this several years ago and it didn't work." I needed that. I needed someone to tell me, "We tried this."
Shah Ally: With the community boards, things work very fast. I didn't have the time to look through archives to see what we've done through the last 50 years. I need someone to tell me, "Shah, we did this. It didn't work for this reason, so your goal if you want to revive it is to figure out why it didn't work and how it could work." And that was a five minute conversation. If that member was not there, it wouldn't happen.
Shah Ally: Members hold on to certain things. If a business who wants a liquor license or some sort of alcohol license wants to come before us, those are renewed every two years, and I have to tell you, members hang on to issues, so when merchants come back in the next two years, we'll say, "Hey, you promised this two years ago," or "You promised this four years ago," and that's the kind of knowledge we need.
Shah Ally: With land use issues, we also look to members, not just what community boards should be doing, but what's the practice per board. The question I ask my members is, "I know what the city charter tells me to do, but what's been our practice?" And if you lose institutional knowledge, you lose the practice as well.
Julie Walker: What do you make of the other two ballot questions? The establishing a civil engagement commission and also the lowering the amount of campaign finance contributions a candidate can receive? Those overwhelmingly passed as well.
Shah Ally: As to the campaign finance, I did support that. It does lower the threshold. It increases the matching funds, and there's the details of it. The spirit of that proposition makes sense. That is to take out the money aspect to a certain degree so as to inhibit qualified candidates to level the playing field. I think that's the idea, is to level the playing field, bringing people in.
Shah Ally: From my experience, candidates rise and fall based on their ability to raise money, and that has nothing to do with the office itself. Whether or not that person is the person that should be in the office, it's "Can they raise money?" I would like to eliminate that. I would like to see that. As a voter, as a citizen, and as a community member, I want the best person in the office, not just the one who can bring in the big dollars. Hopefully, Ballot Proposal One levels that playing field.
Shah Ally: As to Two, the civic commission, I have no idea. I still don't know what it actually means. The wording of it ... And as an attorney, the wording of it, it's flowery and it makes sort of sense until you ask the logical follow-up questions. What does this mean in practice? How is this going to assist? I don't think I know the answers to those, so I voted no for that.
Julie Walker: Well, we have another commission going over the same, the charter. We have the city council going over the charter, so in 2019, we'll have another slew of ballot questions as well. Let's shift gears for a minute and talk about some of the other things going on in your district, which includes Inwood. It includes the George Washington Bridge. How much responsibility does the community board have when it comes to infrastructure and things like traffic?
Julie Walker: We saw what happened during the first major snow storm of the season, people sitting on roadways for five hours. The bridge shut down because of accidents and just a cascading effect of the weather. What, as a community board, what can they do?
Shah Ally: The board, I like to tell members of the community is, the board should be your central point to either get questions answered or to figure out how to answer questions through another agency. We're your central one stop shopping hub. In terms of traffic issues, having the bridge in our district is always great, and I will say how it's great. It helps me identify the district to people who are not familiar with Washington Heights.
Shah Ally: Believe it or not, in New York City, there's probably still those two people who don't know where Washington Heights is. We're a dynamic community, so for those individuals, they might ask, "Tell me something, a landmark in your district that I can identify," and I say the bridge. And they're like, "Oh, the bridge." It's never the George Washington Bridge. It's the bridge, but the issue with that is, when there's a delay or a back-up, it ripples down to our neighborhoods on Fort Washington Ave.
Shah Ally: I think city agencies need ... Mother Nature threw everyone a curve ball, but with proper planning, with the police department, with sanitation, there should've been at least a plan for what happens when this occurs. With the board, we coordinate services throughout. We get monthly, weekly, daily reports from sanitation, from traffic, from the fire department, from our police department. We're going to be looking into this and saying, "What could we have done better to figure out how to help our neighbors?"
Shah Ally: Maybe the police could've gone around and moved double-parked cars or moved people who were standing and stopping so that traffic flows better. I'm sure if there were any good answers to prevent what was happening, but there could be good answers to help mitigate some of the things that were going on.
Julie Walker: Let's talk about what's next for you. Take us through what's coming up for you.
Shah Ally: I'm happy. Obviously, I'm very happy that I was elected, and history was made. I was elected, and I am the first Muslim male judge to be elected statewide. Something I've been doing is going around to bar associations, to lawyers, to anyone who would listen to say, "I am your example. I am the epitome of, 'If this guy can do it, I can do it'."
Shah Ally: There's nothing special about me. There's nothing magical. I put a lot of hard work into it, and I saw something I wanted and I worked for it. It wasn't easy, but neither is success. You have those, all the failures behind you, so I want to help people, I want to help diversify the bench. I want to help get people, again, off the sidelines, lawyers off the sidelines who want to get to the bench, to the judiciary, but didn't know that first step. I want to help with being that first step.
Shah Ally: I'm sworn in. My induction is December 20th. I take office January 2nd. Civil court judges, in addition to your civil court duties, could be assigned to criminal court or family court, so I don't know my assignment yet. I could be assigned to criminal court or family court in any of the five boroughs.
Shah Ally: When you're elected out of one county, you then serve at the pleasure and needs of the unified court system, so I could be in any county in New York City. January 2nd is a special day for me, because one door closes, another door opens, but in my heart, I'm a civil servant. I'm a public servant, and I want to continue.
Shah Ally: One of my pet projects that I want to work on ... My first job is to make sure I do my job correctly and do it well. If there's time left over, which there should be, I want to work on access to justice issues, judicial initiatives. Our court system is working at a very high level now, but it's centralized. It's where the courts are located, and we have members of our community who don't know they have access to this justice, and I think our court system need to be a lot more proactive about getting out.
Shah Ally: There is an office that does that. I want to help with that. I want to go to community boards. I want to go to groups and say, "We won't give you your outcome, and I'm not here to tell you what's going to happen, but I will tell you those doors are open to you." And one population that we have that are particularly vulnerable and don't know they have access to this justice are the individuals who are undocumented, those who are hiding in the shadows and they need help, and our court system's open for them. They just don't know that, so I want to go out there and be a judge of the community, the community judge and say, "Come on in. What happens once you walk through that door, I can't tell you, but you just know that door is there for you."
Julie Walker: Well, thank you very much, Shah Ally, for joining us.
Shah Ally: Thank you.
Julie Walker: Thank you for watching Represent NYC on Manhattan Neighborhood Network.