Person of The Year: Letitia James

Cyril Josh Barker | 12/27/2018, midnight
Attorney General-elect Letitia “Tish” James was a teenager when she saw her brother unjustly arrested for a crime he didn’t ...
Letitia James Contributed

Attorney General-elect Letitia “Tish” James was a teenager when she saw her brother unjustly arrested for a crime he didn’t commit. Her mother took her to criminal court where James witnessed how unfair the criminal justice system is. The experience inspired her to become a public servant.

“Everyone in the courtroom, except for the defendants, did not look like me, and that was shocking,” she said during an interview with the AmNews. “I vowed at that time that I would focus on my education and consider a career in law.”

The year 2018 was a monumental year for James, which marked her second and final term as the city’s public advocate. From shielding the Big Apple from President Donald Trump’s policies, to calling out city agencies on wage disparities to recently placing NYCHA as the city’s worst landlord, James is poised for the next chapter of her life—to serve as New York State’s attorney general.

Her new role will keep her in the city, for the most part, but she will also be in Albany and traveling to the 13 regional offices of the attorney general across the state.

“I had the privilege to know and watch Tish James in her professional career and found her to be an extraordinary public servant,” said NAACP New York State Conference President Hazel Dukes. “I’m sure in this position, which is much needed that oversees many of the areas that concern New Yorkers, she will be a superb attorney general.”

As with most politicians, James’ journey from concerned citizen to elected official is a story about what’s made her beyond qualified to be the Empire State’s strongest legal arm.

Raised in Park Slope, Brooklyn, James is one of eight children. She attended Fort Hamilton High School. She graduated from Lehman College in the Bronx, where she majored in liberal arts with an emphasis on social work.

But it was the book “Simple Justice: The History of Brown v. Board of Education and Black America's Struggle for Equality” by Richard Kluger that pushed her to attend law school at the historically Black Howard University in Washington, D.C.

“That book shaped my life,” James said. “I was fascinated with the story of a small group of attorneys taking on the nation and dismantling legal segregation, and I thought that was powerful.”

James joins a list of legal legends who have graduated from Howard University law school, including Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, former National Urban League President Vernon Jordan and Charlotte E. Ray, the first African-American female lawyer.

After graduating from law school she took on many positions, including as a public defender for the Legal Aid Society, where she dove head first into the legal system.

“I learned that the law is really a powerful tool that can be used as both a sword and a shield for individuals who are at their lowest, and that the Constitution applies to all of us, even to those accused of a crime,” she said.

After working for the Legal Aid Society, James worked for several politicians, including New York Governor Mario Cuomo, former Assemblyman Roger L. Green as chief of staff and Eliot Spitzer when he was the state’s attorney general. She also worked as assistant attorney general in the Brooklyn regional office.