For Clarence Sundram ’72, the lessons he learned early in his law school career about the injustices in our legal system have never left him.
As a young student, he spent a semester clerking for Erie County Court Judge Joseph Mattina, and on Saturdays and Sundays he’d work in the pretrial release program, “interviewing people who had been rounded up by the police the previous night,” he says.
“I saw a lot of poor people who ended up in jail,” Sundram says. “I met with inmates who were arrested for shoplifting a pair of sneakers and couldn’t afford $100 to post bail so they stayed in jail. And then, because they didn’t show up for work, they might lose their job; they couldn’t pay their rent, and their family would be evicted; they couldn’t keep making the payments for their car. I saw that there was a series of collateral consequences that fell upon people because they were poor and incarcerated. It really brought home the impact of law and poverty on the lives of people.”
He went on to work with Professor Herman Schwartz on civil rights of inmates at Attica State Prison, helping to bring inmates’ cases to federal court on issues such as the freedom to practice their religion and the censorship of inmates’ mail.
Now, with a lifetime of work in the public interest to his credit, Sundram is making it possible for new generations of law students to correct inequities in the justice system. A major financial gift from Sundram and his wife, Theresa Rodrigues, will fund fellowships for students participating in the law school’s Innocence and Justice Project, strengthening the project’s work in identifying cases with strong evidence of a miscarriage of justice or denial of due process, and pressing for redress. The Project is part of the law school’s Advocacy Institute, and Sundram serves on the Institute’s National Advisory Board.
The gift brings Sundram full circle after a career spent not in criminal law, but as an advocate in the public sphere for individuals with mental disabilities.
As a new attorney, he clerked in the Appellate Division of New York State Supreme Court and then in the New York Court of Appeals, before joining the counsel’s office of then-Governor Hugh Carey. During his campaign, the governor had committed to major reforms at Willowbrook State School on Staten Island, the nation’s largest state-supported institution for persons with intellectual and developmental disabilities and one whose terrible living conditions had been exposed in sensational media reports.
“There were 5,000 people living there in conditions of Dickensian squalor,” Sundram says. “I went to Willowbrook to try to understand what the fuss was all about, and I saw firsthand just what a wretched place it was for people to live in. It was a real baptism by fire.”
Sundram came to realize the need for a special independent commission to monitor and reform the state’s mental institutions. He drafted the establishing legislation, the State Legislature swiftly passed it, and Governor Carey “had the problem of trying to find someone to run the agency. He turned to me and said, ‘You thought this was a good idea, why don’t you do it?’ I was 29 years old. I thought I’d spend a couple of years setting it up and return to practicing law, but it turned out to be a terrific professional environment and very rewarding work.” He ended up running the commission—the New York State Commission on Quality of Care for the Mentally Disabled—for two decades under three governors.
Sundram then took what he had learned to the world stage as board chair of Mental Disability Rights International, which advocates for the human rights of disabled people worldwide, and as a consultant to UNICEF and the World Health Organization. In those capacities he has worked in Central and South America, Eastern Europe and beyond.
“There are different circumstances in different countries,” Sundram says. “We would help a community figure out what their needs were, as well as a political and legal strategy to get there.” That meant understanding the nuances of the culture; in Romania, for example, the pressure for institutionalizing people with disabilities was great because “there was the belief that the state was a better place to raise kids than families.” Conversely, he says, the strong family structures one finds in Central and South America encourage families to keep their loved ones with disabilities at home.
In the latter part of his career, Sundram has worked as a special master in the U.S. District Court system, appointed by the court to manage the implementation of judgments or consent decrees that require the state to do better in its treatment of those in its care. “It might take five, 10, 15 years to reform a system,” he says. “The special master holds them accountable for doing it and makes sure they’re doing it at a pace that keeps them in compliance with the court order. There are always disputes on all sorts of issues, and you’re essentially resolving those disputes, so they don’t become new lawsuits.” Most recently, he is monitoring implementation of a class-action lawsuit settlement agreement that will give the class of about 4,000 people with mental illness living in 23 adult homes in downstate New York the opportunity to move to supported housing in the community with the support services they need.
Now, with this gift in support of the Innocence and Justice Project, Sundram, a native of India, is looking back in gratitude to where it all began. “We were recent immigrants to the country and pretty much broke,” he remembers. “UB gave me a scholarship which allowed me to attend law school. That opened a lot of doors and possibilities, and without that I don’t think I would have had the career I’ve had.”
The fellowships, he says, will “support students working with professors in the law school and expose them to this area of law. And I hope it may strike a spark with them to commit some part of their professional life to doing this type of work. I see it as a small step toward righting the scales of justice.”