Distinguished Lawyer Acceptance Speech

OCBA Honoree


Susan R. Horn


How much luckier could a girl be than to grow up with a cousin like Rosemary Pooler as a role model? Decades before Hillary famously said in China, Rosemary taught me that women’s rights are human rights and helped change the course of my life. Thank you Rosemary…not even Patty Duke had a better identical cousin.

I am very honored to receive this award. I thank the Onondaga County Bar Association for honoring me and I am especially humbled to have been nominated by members of this bar, including colleagues at Hiscock Legal Aid, for whom I have such respect and admiration.  My thanks to all of you.

My congratulations to Judge Mordue for receiving the well-deserved Ruger Award. We go back a long way so it’s very nice to share this special occasion with you, Judge.

I’ve been blessed with incredible family and friends, many of whom are here. Thank you all for being with me tonight and throughout my life. Special thanks to my spouse and greatest supporter, Sue Gorton, who while dealing with her own career as a school administrator, has seen me through many professional ups and downs with love, good counsel and patience.

I was lucky to grow up in the 60s with the civil rights, anti-war and women’s movements. Among my heroes were Thurgood Marshall, Constance Baker Motley, Bella Abzug and William Kunstler…not to mention Atticus Finch…lawyers who went into the courtroom on behalf of the poor and oppressed to change the world…and they did change it.

So I went to law school in 1971 to try to change the world, too. Just two weeks after I started law school, the Attica Prison Rebellion happened and my real legal education began in the prisons of upstate NY. The inmate survivors of the retaking of the prison became our teachers when soon-to-be lifelong friends, Alan Rosenthal, Maurie Heins, Marsha Weissman and I interviewed and worked with them for the Attica Brothers Legal Defense. We all gained a deeper understanding of what it means to be poor, black and incarcerated in this country; of our privilege being white, middle class and educated; and the seriousness of our responsibility to work for racial and social justice.

When I graduated, my first job was with Onondaga Neighborhood Legal Services, now Legal Services of Central New York, where I learned the importance of providing civil legal services to low income people.

I had two great stints in private practice, first with my friends Alan Rosenthal & Joe Heath and later with my friends Maurie Heins, Susan Finkelstein and Christina Pezzulo. But I found my true professional home at the Hiscock Legal Aid Society where I’ve been for over 32 years, becoming the CEO in 1990.

It may be cliché to say that you’re sharing an award with others but for me, it’s true and heartfelt. Any work that distinguishes me has been done in partnership with, and with the support of the administrators, attorneys, paralegals and support staff at Hiscock Legal Aid with whom I have had the privilege and pleasure of working for all of these years. They really are too numerous to mention…166 attorneys and other staff have worked at legal aid during this time. Some have made lifelong careers at Hiscock; many have left to pursue other opportunities, taking their passion for justice and what they learned at legal aid with them. I share this award with all of them.

I do have to give a shout out to just a few special people who represent all the others. First and foremost, Joanne Sawmiller, our Chief Operating Officer, who has committed her entire professional life to Hiscock Legal Aid and our clients. When I became the CEO, she taught me about managing an organization. She has made me look good. Joanne represents the best of Hiscock Legal Aid and of public interest work. Thank you, Joanne. Thanks also to my friends and former colleagues Langston McKinney and David Okun who taught me, and many others, what it means to be a criminal defense lawyer.

I have also been incredibly lucky to have had the support of dozens of committed, caring Board members over these years. They have all made a difference in our community. And how can you go wrong when you have the mentorship and friendship of Board Chairs like Denny Baldwin, Catherine Richardson, Larry Bousquet, Fred Marty, Ellen LaBerge, Therese Wiley Dancks, Tony Malavenda, Rich Engel, Suzanne Galbato and incoming chair, Virginia Hoveman? They define what leadership for change means.

I want to ask all present and former staff and Board members to please stand and be recognized.

Thank you all!

We at Hiscock Legal Aid Society have also been fortunate to have great collaborative partners in the legal services community…Dennis Kaufman, Sam Young and the staff at Legal Services of Central NY; Paul Lupia, Dan Altwarg and the staff at Legal Aid Society of Mid-NY; and Sally Curran of the Volunteer Lawyers Project, an innovative and courageous new leader in our community. Thanks for all the great work that all of you do.

I’m reminded every day in our offices of the words of a Phil Ochs song I listened to a lot in college…”There but for fortune may go you or I.” The thousands of people we serve each year really are no different from you or me…just less fortunate. I am so proud of the work done every day by our skilled, dedicated (and overworked and underpaid) staff to help our clients…people facing homelessness, domestic violence, unemployment, the loss of their children or the loss of their liberty. I have learned that there are many different ways to change the world…at Hiscock Legal Aid Society we do it every day, one client at a time.

What we do at Legal Aid, we do with the generous support of many of the firms and people here in this room and in the wider legal community. We are very grateful for that.

But I have to tell you that government is failing in its obligation to provide adequate resources to meet the need. This is especially true with respect to mandated services. Our staff who provide mandated representation in Family Court, in appeals and in parole revocation cases, work long hours at extremely low pay under the weight of crushingly excessive caseloads that hamper their ability to do the work that needs to be done. Nonetheless they do amazing work…but we must demand more support for that work.

Many of you know that Onondaga County was one of five counties sued along with NYS for the failures of the current indigent criminal defense system. In part as a result of the settlement of that lawsuit, the County recently sought proposals to revamp the local system and we proposed that Hiscock Legal Aid Society become the primary provider of criminal defense services for the County. This association opposed our proposal and supported the proposal to continue the current Assigned Counsel Program and the County ultimately decided to continue with that program. I’m not here to litigate that decision, but I will say that we as a legal community have a responsibility, and this association by taking the position it did, has assumed a special obligation to ensure that defendants in our community are provided with proper representation.

The well-documented failures of the current system that resulted in the Hurrell Harring lawsuit and settlement must be corrected.

It is unacceptable for defendants to sit in jail for weeks and months without seeing an attorney.

It is unacceptable for defendants to meet their attorneys for the first time in court and be advised to plead guilty.

It is unacceptable for cases to be disposed of or taken to trial with little or no investigation conducted.

And it is unacceptable for attorneys working hard to do right by their clients to have their vouchers cut because someone decides that they spent too much time with their clients, or visited too many times in jail, or made too many motions.

These practices, among many others that undermine the right to counsel, must end. Real, meaningful change must be made now.

Defendants deserve no less.

Justice demands no less; we should demand no less.

I thank you for honoring me and for honoring the work of the Hiscock Legal Aid Society.