Rose H. Sconiers has left her place on the bench, but she has no intention of giving up her seat at the table.
“I have learned over the years, if you’re not at the table, your voice is not heard,” says the recently retired Appellate Court justice.
In fact, now that she has reached the mandatory state retirement age of 70 and is no longer bound by the requirements of judicial restraint, Sconiers suggests that her voice may get a little bit louder.
“I think we have an obligation to stay engaged,” she said, and she looks forward to applying the expertise she has gained from her long tenure in the state judicial system.
The emphasis here is on the “staying” part of the engagement. Though not considered a so-called “activist” judge, off the bench Sconiers always has been exceptionally involved in her communities – locally, statewide and nationally.
As chairwoman of the state’s Franklin H. Williams Judicial Commission on Minorities, she organized a National Consortium on Racial and Ethnic Fairness in the Courts that was held in Buffalo last summer and took on some of the hottest topics in the justice system today.
“That’s what leaders should do,” Sconiers said. “We should take positions. People will listen to them.”
One session at the conference was “Lock ’Em Up and Throw Away the Key,” a critique of onerous sentencing laws for low-level drug offenses, combined with a look at reformative alternatives to prison.
Another topic, “Zero Tolerance and the Schools,” examined the unintended consequences of strict school safety policies that wound up creating a “school-to-prison pipeline” for troubled adolescents of color.
Sconiers has called them “throwaway kids,” for whom just getting to school can be a challenge.
She saw many of them firsthand when she was elected a Buffalo City Court judge in 1987. She lauds the efforts of New York’s former Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman in supporting more “special interest” courts that deal exclusively with specific offenses like drug cases.
“They’re in a better position to find alternatives for them,” she said, rather than sending them to jail.
The young people who came before her in criminal court had lives far removed from her own childhood growing up in Virginia. In an interview several years ago, she talked about her early influences.
“When I went to high school, our role models were our teachers, who were all black,” Sconiers said. “Everyone in my life felt that if you were going to be something, you had to go to college. That was my key to a better life.”
It didn’t take long for her to realize that to change a system, she had to find a way to get inside of it.
“So that’s when I applied to law school and moved to Buffalo,” she said.
She became an assistant corporation counsel for the City of Buffalo in 1975 and was executive attorney for the Legal Aid Bureau of Buffalo from 1980 until her election as judge.
In November 1993, she was the first African-American woman outside of New York City to become a justice on the State Supreme Court.
It was there that she made her greatest impact from the bench for another minority group – Native Americans.
“Every judge has one thing they get known for,” Sconiers said.
For her, it was her handling of Albany’s efforts to force retailers on the Seneca Nation’s tribal lands to collect state taxes on cigarettes sold to non-Indians. Sconiers sided with the tribe.
“One friend said I freed the Indians,” she said, appreciating the irony. Her own feeling is that the ruling was appropriate and it also “helped tamp down the potential for violence.”
The violence in society in general continues to worry her. She has praise for the majority of police officers and is an advocate for more outreach by law enforcement through community policing.
“People have a chance to get to know the officers, and they build trust with each other,” she said.
On the other hand, she also believes the Black Lives Matter movement is “something that is long overdue.”
“It has been hard for people to believe what’s happening with these young people without seeing it,” she said. “Now, with technology, with the cellphone cameras, we can see.”
It shouldn’t be up to the public alone to report mistreatment, she added.
“If good police officers see something, they also need to say something,” she said. “Officers put their lives on the line for us every day, and this kind of thing affects the whole department. We want to curtail this bad behavior – and what they call ‘testi-lying’ on the stand.”
She offers a personal anecdote from court, when she ruled against an officer who was testifying.
“He was overheard outside the courtroom talking about how he was going to retaliate – write tickets on me or something. I had to report him,” she said.
Sconiers left the courtroom for good a couple of months ago and is relishing her new status. When she travels, she no longer carries with her a case of legal briefs to review, and she is exploring brand-new ways she can make a difference.
One avenue is more personal than some of the others. A longtime active member of St. Philip’s Episcopal Church, the historically black congregation on Sussex Street, she recently became a trustee for the Episcopal Diocese of Buffalo, whose membership is largely white.
It is one of the “tables” where she hopes to be a fresh voice.
And another arena is also appealing to her.
“I really do like politics,” Sconiers said. “I couldn’t be very vocal as a judge, (but) if I get an opportunity I would like to participate. People don’t understand, everything is a political decision.”
And at the top of her hoping-to-do list:
“I would love to go to the Democratic National Convention,” she said. “Even if I just go to watch.”