By: Lauren Tucker | Staff Writer
On January 14, 2016, I had the privilege of speaking with Supreme Court Justice Duane A. Hart about his experience working as a judge in the Commercial Division in Queens County. Justice Hart attended Columbia University for his undergraduate education and later graduated from Howard University School of Law. After graduating from law school, Justice Hart soon became a Queens County Assistant District Attorney, in the major crimes bureau, and specialized in several areas including career criminals and special victims. After serving as an ADA for over 6 years, Justice Hart then served as the law clerk for the Hon. Daniel W. Joy. Justice Hart has also had experience working in private practice, trying personal injury cases and no-fault arbitrations. Justice Hart served as a Judge in the New York City Civil Court, from 2000 to 2001. In 2002, he was elected to be a Justice of the Queens County Supreme Court, Civil Term in the 11th Judicial District of New York, and in November 2015 he was re-elected to this position.
What are your favorite and least favorite experiences or aspects of the Commercial Division from your point of view as a judge?
Answer: My least favorite aspect is when I see cases labeled as Commercial Division cases which would be more suited in other courts. For example, cases between a boyfriend and girlfriend or significant others, which should be in matrimonial court, but are labeled as a Commercial Division case because they owned or were partners in a business together. My favorite aspect is what I am able to do with the Commercial Division cases. I am enough of an optimist that, when I have a complicated fact pattern, I know I can do some good for somebody. I enjoy that aspect. Particularly, when I can put together, or help put together a plan that saves a neighborhood or saves some businesses. I have had cases where I have been able to keep people working and families fed. Sometimes, it is about fighting so that a person or a company can pay their tax bill or trying to convince the city, a landlord, or someone else, that it is more important to have people work and feed their families.
Do you ever reject a case that is labeled Commercial Division?
Answer: No. Cases are very rarely rejected. If I reject it, where is it going to go? It is just going to end up somewhere else in front of another judge, so why bother rejecting it. You are served the plate that you are given.
What are the most important topics in the Commercial Division today that the legal community and everyday people should be focusing on?
Answer: International cases are really on the rise in the Commercial Division. A significant rise can be seen in New York County’s Commercial Division because Manhattan is a hub of international business. Years ago, international cases were only heard in Federal court, but now New York State court is as good a forum for international commercial cases of any size or feature. Queens does have a few international cases, and I have had a handful myself, but New York County is really the hub for those cases.
What is unique about being a Commercial Division judge?
Answer: The New York Commercial Division Judges are the most experienced, and the most senior judges, because of the complexity of the issues they handle. Some of these issues are rather complex, such that even some of the attorneys don’t know how complex they are. Consequently, Commercial Division cases require experienced attorneys as well. In State court, you see your best litigators in the Commercial Division and complicated medical malpractice cases, as well as in condemnations. The more complex the issue in the case, the better the attorney is usually.
How did your background (law school, law clerking, etc..) help prepare you for working in the Commercial Division?
Answer: Well one thing I did, before I went to law school, is that I went to business school for a while. I also interned for the U.S. Controller of the Currency in Washington, D.C. during law school, which gave me a little bit of banking background. But, again, since the day I walked in I have always had complex cases, which helps.
What advice would you give to a new Law Clerk, who has never worked in the Commercial Division?
Answer: Stay awake, and hope that the Judge knows what he or she is doing.
What book, it does not have to be a legal book, would you recommend that every member of the legal community (law students, attorneys, judges) read?
Answer: It is not a book, but the New York Times. I read it every day.
You were an ADA for several years, why did you choose to be a Civil Court Judge opposed to a Criminal Court Judge?
Answer: For me, civil is more interesting. There is a sameness about criminal cases that you do not have in civil cases. Again, I think that civil is more complex. Unless you are doing big time cases, a lot of the criminal cases start to sound alike. However, the same can be true of some civil cases, I mean a car accident case is a car accident case. But fortunately, there are a wider range of topics and issues at hand in civil court. I have done everything from condemnations to voter fraud.
How many of your cases are classified as Commercial Division Cases, compared to your regular caseload.
Answer: It varies because I have a large roster of cases. I am only on top of my game the more work I do. I have to be intellectually challenged, and if I am not, it is not good for me. So I enjoy the Commercial Division cases.