By NANCY KING
Fifty years after President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act into law, the face of Civil Rights in America has dramatically changed. What was originally intended to level equality between African-Americans and whites has 50 years on becone much broader and much more complicated. Civil Rights now encompass the rights of women, same-sex marriage, employee rights, 1st Amendment rights, and the seemingly never-ending reach government has in the lives of private citizens. Not surprisingly, there are few attorneys who will wade into the weeds of protecting these rights. However, Goshen-based attorney Michael Sussman has earned the reputation as one of the nation’s most fearless and principled Civil Rights attorney.
The 59-year-old Harvard trained lawyer first burst onto the scene in 1981 at the age of 29 when he was retained by the Yonkers NAACP. At that time, the NAACP alleged that Yonkers was segregating their residents by where they lived and attended school. So with just three years of experience after law school, Sussman brought forth a suit against the City of Yonkers, the Yonkers Board of Education, the State of New York, and HUD. The case, presided over by Judge Leonard Sands dragged on for 27 years and rocked Yonkers to its very core by bankrupting the city. But, in the end justice was served; Yonkers was deemed to desegregate its neighborhoods and its schools. It was the case that put Michael Sussman on the map as a champion of those who are having their rights violated.
While based in the Orange County town of Goshen, Michael Sussman has been a fixture down here in Westchester since October of 2010 when he was retained by the family of murdered Pace University student DJ Henry. At the heart of that case lies the question as to whether the Mount Pleasant Police Department filed a false account of the events of that night leading up to the death of DJ Henry. While a Grand Jury convened at the behest of District Attorney Janet DiFiore cleared Officer Hess and the Mount Pleasant Police of any wrongdoing in the death of Henry, Federal Depositions clearly have proven otherwise. In addition to that case, Mr. Sussman is handling a discrimination case for a former Westchester County Department of Social Services (DSS) worker who exposed the termination of minority workers who were replaced by young white males who had been allegedly promised political patronage jobs by County Executive Rob Astorino. Presumably the District Attorney may have also had a hand in this termination as well since the fraud investigator and her staff may have uncovered alleged impropriety by the Westchester County District Attorney in helping her long-time nanny receive public assistance benefits. The fraud investigator was terminated on December 31st, 2013.
Sussman is also defending Westchester County businessman and publisher Sam Zherka in a case that sees Zherka’s First Amendment rights violated after he formed the Westchester County Tea Party several years ago. Since forming the party and holding rallies, Zherka has been a target of multiple investigations by the IRS and has seen some long term lending institutions that he had been conducting business with for years, suddenly shy away from doing business with him. Is Zherka being punished for his political beliefs and his ability to voice them publicly; it sure does seem like it. It was enough of a question that Mr. Sussman went ahead and filed suit upon Zherka’s behalf. That suit is winding its way through the layers of the judicial onion and will be determined at a later date.
In the meantime Michael Sussman tackles one Civil Rights case after another. After a meaningful conversation on the air on Wednesday with Adam Bradley and me, Sussman came across loud and clear that as Americans we need to protect our rights by questioning the decisions of our elected officials. We need to start visiting court proceedings and observing whether justice is being served or whether our DA’s and judges are indeed administering justice or are they in a case just for a “win”. We need to stand up for the reckless regard for human life and begin questioning the use of deadly force that it becoming all too common in police work and we need to hold our District Attorneys accountable for what they choose to try.
President Johnson was on the right track fifty-years-ago when he signed the Civil Rights Act into law but 50-years later we’ve become so much more than just blacks or whites. We’re a nation that really hasn’t achieved our potential in the area of equal rights for all. Until we actually meet that goal, you can bet that Michael Sussman will be defending those rights one case at a time.
Nancy King is a freelancer residing in Westchester County.