Ithaca College Quarterly

Winter 1996

. . . And for the People,

Michael Battle

by J. Michael Serino
"Across racial, cultural, and economic lines, people generally want the same things. They want security; they want crime to go away. They want less confrontation between the suburbs and the city, because there's a feeling that the city is dying, and they're fleeing. And there are those of us who are hanging on and saying, 'No, that's not true.' "

Michael Battle '77, the assistant New York State attorney general in charge of the Buffalo regional office, was rummaging through a file cabinet containing notes on his civic and community work. The drawer was packed with information on such organizations as the United Way, the Theater of Youth, the Cerebral Palsy Association, the Crisis Center, the Erie County Bar Association, and the Minority Bar Association-all of which Battle has served as a member of the board of directors at some point during the 10 years he has been in Buffalo.

"I made a conscious decision that if I was going to stay in this community, I wanted to make sure I really wanted to be here," he said. "It's one thing to come downtown and practice in the legal community on a day-to-day basis, but I wanted to find out as much as I could about Buffalo as a whole, and that's why I stretched out as far as I could."

Michael Battle seems almost too good to be true. As a lawyer, he has distinguished himself both defending clients and prosecuting criminals. As a civic leader, he has received such honors as the 1994 Martin Luther King Jr. Award from the Erie County Chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the Buffalo News "Citizen of the Year" Award for Outstanding Service.

Battle is a big man, well dressed and solidly built. He looks like a former football player --- which in fact he is, having played for four years at Ithaca College. He was at home in his office above Buffalo's Delaware Circle, and despite the constant bustle in the outer office, the ongoing interruptions at the door or on the phone, he was relaxed and comfortable speaking about his life and values. At the center of those values, he said, has been a belief in the importance of the legal system.

His love for the law came early in his undergraduate career at Ithaca. As a sociology/anthropology major, Battle had been thinking of pursuing a career in law enforcement, possibly with the FBI. During his freshman year he formed a friendship with a fellow student whose husband was a Cornell law student named Robert Johnson. One day Johnson asked him if he had ever considered the legal profession.

Battle's initial response was skepticism. "My reaction was, 'How could I possibly do that?' There were no lawyers in the family; I had no exposure to the profession. How could I possibly get from point A to point B?"

But with Johnson as his inspiration, he began to take the possibility more seriously. A summer job in the New York City court system after freshman year clinched it for him: Battle set his mind to being a lawyer and spent the next three years preparing himself for that goal.

"It was like a fire that built up in my belly," he recalled. "I began to read about lawyers, spend all my time thinking about lawyers. I walked around campus with a briefcase, I read law journals-did all those things. I felt that lawyers were looked up to and revered-at least that's the way I looked at them. I saw myself as a lawyer for the people."

From Ithaca he went on to the State University of New York at Buffalo law school, and then to his first job-for the Legal Aid Society in New York City, where he handled a wide range of cases, including numerous housing cases and landlord-tenant disputes. This seemed the perfect way to put his legal skills to work helping others. But he was in for an awakening.

"My idealistic self, I went right into legal aid and found out that it was a different world out there," he said. "When you get out of law school, you figure you're Superlawyer-you have this big "S" on your chest and you're going to turn everything around. One of the things I learned fairly quickly was that the system in which the people I represented were functioning had been around a lot longer than I had, and it wasn't going to change much at all. My job, basically, was to help my clients maneuver through that system so that they could get back to doing whatever they were doing. But my philosophy was to get them through it and then help them try to turn their lives around. They didn't mind part A, but they didn't want any part of part B. So it created some disillusionment to know that I was being used in that way."

After a few years of legal-aid work, Battle started looking for a change. He had married Sheila Jones, a 1979 Ithaca College physical therapy graduate, and by the mid-'80s they were living in the Bronx with two young children. He decided he didn't want to stay in New York anymore.

So he gave his friend Sal Martoche a call. When Battle was a law student in Buffalo, Martoche had run the Erie County Bar Association Pretrial Service Agency. Along with other law students volunteering their time, Battle had gone to the jails in the early morning hours, talking to those who had been arrested the night before, gathering and verifying biographical information, and then going to court to provide the judge with assistance in ruling on bail.

"You could tell who was dedicated and who wasn't, because they had to be in the cell blocks by 6:00 a.m.," said Martoche. Battle, he added, was one of the most promising students to come his way.

By 1985 Martoche was a U.S. attorney for the western district of New York. When Battle told him that he was interested in leaving the city, Martoche sent him a job application. Seven months later, the Battles relocated to Buffalo.

Now Battle was a prosecutor. He began by serving as a staff attorney for the Organized Crime Task Force and later moved over to the civil division. His goal was the same as it had been when he left law school: to make the legal system work to the benefit of the people caught up in it.

"At every level that I've practiced, I've felt I was serving some segment of the community," he said. "I felt that because I had the power to subpoena and indict and do a lot of other things, I could influence people's lives in a positive way. I had the power to maybe charge someone in a certain way when incarceration wasn't the answer --- maybe probation, helping them to get one more chance. Charging decisions are made by the U.S. attorney, and final sentences are made by the court, but as a prosecutor you're in a position to influence those decisions.
"Don't get me wrong --- I'm not soft on crime. But when you're a prosecutor they tell you that your goal is to see that justice is done. If I felt that justice was better served by getting someone some help, it was my obligation to do that."

Friends have described his courtroom style as "conversational," an assessment with which Battle concurs.

"I would never describe myself as flamboyant: I am not Johnny Cochrane. I try to talk to everyone like we're having a discussion; I think it lulls them into a sense of security. And when you become skilled in cross-examination, you can hook someone without their even knowing you're doing it; then you save it all for your closing argument. It's almost like a football game: you take what they give you and you run with it."

During Battle's stint in the U.S. attorney's office Martoche returned to private practice and the office was taken over by Dennis Vacco, now the attorney general of New York State. This connection, like the earlier one with Martoche, would serve Battle well.

But first he would return to the defense side of the courtroom. In 1992 a federal public defender's office was established in Buffalo, and Battle was offered the opportunity to run it. Ironically, he often found himself in court opposing his former colleagues in the U.S. attorney's office. Knowing his opponents' strategies-just how far they would go with a plea bargain, for instance-proved a tremendous advantage. He liked the challenge.

"It's almost like playing in the NFL: You know everybody; you've known them for years. You do the best you can, but you don't cheat. That's what we did: we fought hard, we fought clean. It was a good experience."

But the types of criminals that came to dominate Battle's caseload led him to become disillusioned with public defense work again. It seemed as if most of his cases involved drug dealers or smugglers-often foreign nationals-who had little interest in being helped in any way other than being released from jail immediately.

"You're off to a bad start with your client right away, because there's no judge in the world that's going to let him out on bail; so your client already hates you because you can't get him out, and you're behind the eight ball the whole way," Battle said. "I was moving away from the kind of client I wanted to spend my life not only defending, but helping."

The situation was not to last long: three years later opportunity came calling once again. In November 1994 George Pataki was elected governor of New York, and Dennis Vacco elected attorney general. Two months later Battle became assistant attorney general --- the first of Vacco's regional appointments.

As such an appointment implies, Battle is a Republican.

"I feel it's a mistake for blacks not to look at the Republican Party," he asserted. "I've tried to use myself as an example that you can be a Republican and not be perceived as a monster. What I've seen, and what I've heard from other black Republicans, is that there is room for everybody. We need to be educated about the Republican Party and they need to be educated about us."

Not that race isn't an issue for him.

"It's always an issue. Being African American in this country, every day you have to think about that. Every day-but not all day. There's a difference between thinking about it and wearing it on your sleeve." And while he has encountered his share of prejudice in life, he has not let it hold him back in pursuing his goals.

And what are those goals, ultimately? The breadth and balance in his legal experience might ultimately lead him to a judgeship --- he has already been considered for such a post --- or to opening his own law office. Politics?

"My first real taste of it is in this job, and I'm still trying to figure out whether I like it."

"His career is in his own hands," said Sal Martoche. "I think he'd make an excellent judge." As for politics, "he'd be a tough candidate to run against, because there would be nothing negative for an opponent to get his arms around. The only thing that could interfere with a political career is that he knows what his priorities are. For him, family always comes first."

Indeed, Battle makes it very clear that his primary concern is his wife and three children. Perhaps the emphasis upon family life grew from what he has seen in the community; perhaps it resulted from his own childhood.

"My father left when I was two," he said. "I never got to know him."

Yet his mother provided a strong example of parental dedication, and Battle often cites her as an inspiration.

"My mom is incredible," he said. "You look at a woman who gets up at 5:00 in the morning to go to work every day, and you think, 'If she's willing to work that hard to make my life easy, then I guess I owe it to her not to screw up.'
"If I raise my kids to be productive citizens, and everybody else does, then you don't need all these committees; everybody's doing their job," he continued. "And if anything that I do in any way clashes with my family time or responsibility, then I don't do it. This is my family. I don't want to be one of those guys whom everybody loves because he's out running around his community doing this and that, and all of a sudden he looks up and his kid is a heroin addict because he didn't pay attention to him.
"That isn't going to happen, or if it happens it isn't going to be my fault, because that's my first responsibility."

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