When Helena Heath ’87 was in second grade, she recalls, a classmate was wrongly scolded for talking while the teacher’s back was turned. Heath spoke out in support of the other student. The teacher asked Heath to stay after class—and snapped that if she needed a lawyer, she’d call the Legal Aid Society.
“What was the message there?” Heath asks, “To me, it was that lawyers must be the people who defend the vulnerable and stand up for what is right. It was something I really took to heart.”
As a law student, Heath interned with the Legal Aid Society, later beginning her career at the New York Court of Appeals. In 2005, she was appointed and then elected as a city court judge in Albany—the first woman of African descent to serve on the court in the city’s then 319-year history. After 16 years on the bench and a 33-year public service legal career in New York state government, Heath retired and moved to Washington, DC, where her son lives, to pursue a career in the federal government. In January 2023, she was appointed by President Biden to serve as director of the US Department of Justice’s Office of Sex Offender Sentencing, Monitoring, Apprehending, Registering, and Tracking (SMART Office).
In this Q&A, Heath discusses how her new role draws upon skills honed on the bench as well as her passion for public service.
Were there any experiences during Law School or your early jobs that you found formative for your career?
At the Law School, I received a Root-Tilden scholarship because of my commitment to public service work. NYU Law was my number one choice because of its commitment to the kind of public interest work I wanted to do. I had the unbelievable experience of taking Criminal Law with [Edwin D. Webb Professor of Law] David Richards and I ended up being his TA. His passion for criminal justice and criminal law was so affirming to me. I also participated in the Criminal Law Clinic taught by [Fiorello LaGuardia Professor of Clinical Law Emeritus] Marty Guggenheim [’71] and [University Professor Emeritus] Tony Amsterdam, the preeminent scholars in juvenile and criminal justice.
After Law School, my first job was as a law clerk as part of the central legal research staff at the New York Court of Appeals and that brought me up to Albany. There’s no better job than working at the state’s highest court in terms of your skills being honed and the exposure at the highest level to how decisions have an impact on all courts throughout the state. It was a wonderful experience. From the clerkship, I went to the litigation unit of the New York State Attorney General’s Office and held other governmental positions, including as an attorney for the state Economic Development Department and as a senior counsel for the New York State assembly speaker.
Tell me about your appointment to the city court in 2005. Were there any significant moments you’d point to during your time on the bench?
The City of Albany mayor appointed me city court judge to fill a vacancy for someone who retired, but you have to run and be elected to stay in the position. So, I got appointed in April 2005 and then I ran for office in November 2005, and then ran for re-election two times after that in 2011 and 2017, fortunately successfully.
Your duty as a member of the judiciary in a trial court is to make decisions affecting people’s every day quality of life—anything from a traffic ticket to housing evictions to serious misdemeanor criminal charges. When you’re making decisions about people’s lives, it’s very important to understand their concerns and also be an active participant in the community itself, so you know what people care about and what their challenges are.
There are five judges on Albany city court, and I presided over a very heavy housing part calendar where we heard eviction cases on a daily basis. Then during the pandemic, the moratorium on evictions and the CARES [Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security] Act, I was involved in putting that federal law and new state laws and rules in place.
I’m also proud of having worked to establish the Children’s Center at Family Court in Albany, an idea started by [New York Court of Appeals] Chief Judge Judith Kaye [’62]. The center provides a safe place for children while their caregivers take care of court business in family court. Children are shielded from tense and often angry interactions between parents, and parents get to focus on their cases without their children being in the courtroom.
How did you decide to move into the federal government? What does your new position as director of the DOJ’s SMART Office entail?
Any organization that has the word “justice” in it—I’m sold.
The SMART Office is part of the Office of Justice Programs (OJP) within the US Department of Justice. OJP’s policy and grantmaking work supports communities in carrying out law enforcement activities and criminal justice reforms. There’s a lot of work done to help crime victims, engage and partner with communities, and listen to their voices to help improve public safety. So I thought of OJP as being a wonderful fit for me when I was approached to serve as a director of one of its units.
My community service work in Albany was always centered around promoting racial and gender equity. The people I work with at OJP are tremendously committed to ensuring fairness and equity within the criminal justice system. The SMART Office administers millions of dollars in grants to help communities implement the standards of the Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act. I look forward to bringing my skill sets and experiences to my new role, which includes listening closely to people’s needs and concerns and fairly administering the law, and I am excited to learn from my amazing new colleagues.
There’s always that nice feeling when you’re exposed to different issues and you find a way to utilize your skills to bring about the ultimate goal of serving the public and meeting the needs of our communities.
This interview has been edited and condensed. Posted June 23, 2023.