Twyla Carter becomes first Black woman to head nation’s oldest, largest public defender

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Attorney Twyla Carter to lead New York’s Legal Aid Society.
Spencer Gallop/The Legal Aid Society

New York’s Legal Aid Society has announced the appointment of Twyla Carter, a national leader in public defense, civil rights and access to justice work, as attorney-in-chief and chief executive officer.

Carter becomes the first Black woman and first Asian American to serve in this role in its over 145-year history. Carter will assume this role full-time in August 2022.

The Legal Aid Society said Carter will depart her role as national director of Legal and Policy at The Bail Project, a nonprofit organization that provides free bail assistance and pretrial support to thousands of low-income people every year.

In this position, Carter created the unit’s strategic mission and directed the legal, policy and advocacy efforts at the federal, state and local levels, and successfully fought efforts in multiple states to eradicate or limit the work of charitable bail organizations.

Prior to joining The Bail Project, Carter served as a senior staff attorney in the Criminal Law Reform Project at the American Civil Liberties Union, where she litigated local and state bail inequities and right-to-counsel protections in the federal courts and designed alternative bail and representation policies and procedures for targeted jurisdictions.

Notably, Carter litigated Booth v. Galveston County, a pretrial bail case in Texas, where the magistrate court held that people accused of crimes have a right to counsel in initial bail hearings under the Sixth Amendment, one of the only jurisdictions in the nation to guarantee legal representation at this critical stage of trial.

Carter was also a public defender for 10 years as the misdemeanor practice director for the Kings County (Brooklyn) Department of Public Defense.

She also served as a staff attorney with The Defender Association on felony and misdemeanor cases.

“It’s truly an honor to join the nation’s oldest and largest public law firm serving low-income people on a myriad of issues ranging from criminal defense to tenant rights, access to justice for young New Yorkers, and so much more,” Carter said.

“Now more than ever, vulnerable New Yorkers need Legal Aid, and I look forward to further enabling and positioning the organization to strengthen bedrock direct services, policy advocacy and impact litigation work,” she added. “Our clients deserve nothing less.”

In her new role, the Legal Aid Society said Carter will work to secure Legal Aid funding fairness to ensure that staff are fully compensated for their invaluable work and that the organization has the resources needed to continue to provide New Yorkers comprehensive legal representation.

This campaign will build on Legal Aid’s pay parity efforts, which sought to bridge the salary gap between public defender and civil legal services employees with city attorneys.

“Legal Aid has played an incomparable role in New York City for well over a century, connecting vulnerable New Yorkers with critical legal services to address a myriad of needs,” said Zachary Carter, chair of the Board of Directors at The Legal Aid Society. “We are thrilled that Twyla Carter, a prominent member of the national public defender and civil rights community, will serve at the helm of Legal Aid, positioning the organization to meet the challenges that face our clients and the communities we serve.”

“The Legal Aid Society has been a vital partner in Robin Hood’s mission to elevate New Yorkers out of poverty, particularly through Legal Aid’s advocacy for the creation of safe, long-term, and affordable housing for low-income communities,” said Richard R. Buery, Jr., chief executive officer of Robin Hood, New York City’s largest poverty fighting philanthropy.

“From her time as a public defender and as a civil rights advocate, Twyla Carter has fought for justice for those too-long denied it,” he added. “We are thrilled to see Twyla bring her expertise to a storied institution – an appointment made even more significant as the first Black woman Attorney-in-Chief and Chief Executive Officer to lead Legal Aid.”

“The Legal Aid Society deserves to be commended for the historic appointment of Twyla Carter as its next attorney-in-chief and chief executive officer,” said Janet DiFiore, chief judge of the Court of Appeals and the State of New York. “Ms. Carter brings a wealth of leadership experience in the areas of public criminal defense and civil access to justice.

“I have no doubt that she will be a valued contributor to New York’s ongoing efforts to close the access to justice gap and ensure fair and effective legal representation for individuals and families of modest means,” Chief Judge DiFiore added. “We look forward to Ms. Carter’s leadership of The Legal Aid Society as it continues to carry out its mission of providing effective legal assistance and representation to the most vulnerable New Yorkers – no matter who they are or where they come from in life.”

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