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Oops! Bronx public defender wasn't legal

By CHRISENA COLEMAN
NY DAILY NEWS STAFF WRITER

Thousands of Bronx criminal cases may get a second look because the public defender who handled them never was licensed to practice law, the Daily News has learned.

Diane Shamis, 45, who spent four years trying juvenile cases for the Legal Aid Society in the Bronx and two years with the Bronx Defenders, was fired from the defender's office in June after her lack of credentials was revealed, authorities said.

Both Bronx law agencies, which represent people too poor to hire private attorneys, are scrambling to contact thousands of defendants by mail to let them know about the fiasco. "This is a nightmare for these agencies," said one Legal Aid lawyer, who wanted anonymity.

He said cases Shamis was involved with may have to be overturned or retried. Shamis could not be reached for comment.

The situation came to light when one of Shamis' former clients filed a complaint against her with the bar association, which did not list her as a member.

Robin Steinberg of Bronx Defenders said her office was "shocked to learn that Ms. Shamis was not admitted" to the state bar association.

"Ms. Shamis graduated from CUNY Law School, passed the bar and had been practicing law in Bronx County for many years before we hired her," she said.

But even though Shamis passed the bar exam, she was never admitted to the bar association. Once applicants pass the bar, they must go before a board of examiners who review their character and fitness.

"She did not take the oath," said Catherine Wolfe, a clerk for the Appellate Division's First Department, which handles admission and discipline for the Bronx and Manhattan courts.

Originally published on November 4, 2003