In the corridors of the New York state Capitol, John Dunne is recalled with a respect bordering on reverence, and often viewed as a rare statesman in a Legislature that has become synonymous with acrimony, dysfunction and corruption.
Dunne spent 24 years as a Republican member of the Senate. Ironically, Dunne, now senior counsel to the Albany firm of Whiteman Osterman & Hanna, devoted much of his post-political career to reigning in the controversial Rockefeller Drug Lawswhich he had helped usher through the upper chamber.
Dunne, 83, represented Long Island in the Legislature from 1966 to 1989, simultaneously practicing law as a partner at the firm then known as Rivkin, Radler, Dunne & Bayh. In the Senate, he held a variety of leadership posts, including chairman of the Judiciary, Environmental Protection, Insurance and Prisons committees and serving as deputy majority leader.
After leaving his elected post, Dunne was appointed assistant attorney general for civil rights at the U.S. Department of Justice, a position he held from 1990 to 1993. A 1951 graduate of Georgetown University and 1954 graduate of Yale Law School, Dunne, a father of four and grandfather of eight, now lives with his wife in Columbia County.
Q: How did you end up at Whiteman Osterman & Hanna, and what sort of work are you doing? Are you lobbying? For who or what?
A: I came to Whiteman Osterman & Hanna in 1994 after leaving the Justice Department following President [George H.W.] Bush's defeat. My wife and I wanted to settle somewhere we would want to spend the rest of our lives. I had worked with both [principals] Michael Whiteman and John Hanna when I was in the Senate and they arranged for me to join the firm as counsel, an arrangement which has been very pleasurable and fulfilling for almost two decades.
Now I am doing pretty much pro bono work in a variety of fields, principally the judiciary and criminal justice, e.g., the Fund for Modern Courts and a number of commissions appointed by the chief judge, Prisoners' Legal Services, Office of Indigent Legal Services, Rockefeller drug law reform and numerous state bar committees and activities. The only lobbying I have done is on behalf of drug law change, court simplification and legal aid, all on a pro bono basis.
As one who started his career as a litigator, courts have always been very close to my heart. I have been a longtime advocate of merger and simplification of the court system. Back in 1973, Franz Leichter, then an assemblyman, and I had the so-called 'Dunne-Leichter Bill,' which called for the simplification and merger of the Family Court, Surrogate's Court, Court of Claims, Supreme Court and County Court into one court. And I have been a long advocate for the appointment of judges.
Q: You mention court merger and court simplification. That would require a constitutional amendment. To the surprise of many, the Legislature gave the measure first passage in 1986, but it never got second passage. What happened?
A: Very simple. The leaders got together on the closing days of the Legislature in 1986 and looked around and said, 'Hmm, we have to stand for reelection this year. What have we done?' The courts said, 'Well, what about us? What about the [merger] proposal?' Literally, in the dark of night, it was the last bill passed in the 1986 session. But there was no momentum, no real driving force behind it.