How Walter Became a Judge After Justice Involvement

How Walter Became a Judge After Justice Involvement

12/19/2019

In the mid-1960s, Walter Strauss was sentenced to 10-15 years in prison on a drug charge. He was sitting in Rahway State Prison in New Jersey and with his future uncertain, decided to take charge. He began studying law while imprisoned to appeal his case and reduce his sentence. Along the way, with the skills and knowledge he acquired from arguing his own case, Walter assisted other incarcerated people with their cases. He became a self-taught lawyer, harnessing a trait that would aide him throughout his life: persistence.

Around the time Walter was immersed in law jargon, he started taking classes in prison about criminal justice, taught by David Rothenberg, Fortune’s founder.

This seemingly chance encounter eventually sprouted into a life-long friendship, with David assisting Walter in his appeal with written testimony. The testimony, combined with Walter’s well-honed knowledge of criminal law, persuaded the trial court to reduce his sentence, making Walter eligible for parole.

After five years in prison, Walter was released—and it was David who greeted him at the gates.

Walter was then offered a job at Fortune as a paralegal, and he went on to earn his master’s degree in criminal justice at John Jay College. He then decided to take the next big step—to go to law school and become a lawyer.

But one obstacle stood in the way of achieving this goal—his past.

“Basically, anybody who was a convicted felon was excluded from becoming an attorney,” he says.

In fact, some doubted that he could successfully be admitted to the bar —even David was initially skeptical.

However, that did not deter Walter from striving for success, and within a few years, he graduated from Rutgers Law School.

When the time came to apply for admission to the bar, Walter had to challenge the bar’s Ethics Committee, which had a policy making the admission of justice-involved individuals highly unlikely. He attended hearings and gathered witnesses, including David. Through his persistence, Walter was finally admitted to the bar in New York and New Jersey. He eventually became a Housing Court judge in New York—and one of the first formerly incarcerated judges in New York State.

“I didn't know if I was going to succeed or not, but I was willing to be persistent about it,” he says.

The obstacles didn’t end there—when Walter moved to Florida, he faced even stricter laws that restricted the rights of justice-involved people. There, his right to be admitted to the bar was restrained yet again. But overcoming challenges was nothing new for Walter—he garnered his inner strength, fought through layers of bureaucracy, and appealed to the Florida courts. But once again, his persistence paid off. He was admitted to the Florida bar. Now retired, he looks back on the trait that helped him succeed at Fortune and beyond.

“Persistence is a key factor in everything,” he says. “So whatever it is that you think you might want to do, some people try once and give up. But those who persist will have the best chance of succeeding.”

Nearly 50 years after Walter first came to Fortune, he continues to be involved and has returned to share his story with participants at the Castle, our housing unit in Harlem. There, he encourages them to pursue an education and find a profession that they find fulfilling. Through telling his story, Walter leaves a lasting impression on participants.

“The impact is tremendous because [Walter is] one of them and [he] makes it clear that he’s one of them” recalls David. “[Walter] says: ‘I’m a judge. Anything is possible.’”

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