Iranian-American Judge Kraus Gets Elected to New York’s Civil Court, Helps Lawyers of Iranian Descent

By Peyman Pejman

If the name Sabrina Setareh Kraus doesn’t mean anything to you yet, rest assured: it soon will – especiallly if you live in New York.

Born in New York State in 1966 to Jewish-Iranian parents who had left the country only two years earlier, Sabrina completed her studies in her home state. She got her Bachelor’s Degree from Colgate University in 1988, and her Juris Doctor from the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law in 1991.

A year later, she started her career as an associate at the Kucker Kraus & Bruh LLP law firm. Six years later, she was a partner. Two years after that, she was out the door to take up another senior position: as a partner at Borah Goldstein Altschuler Schwartz & Nahins, P.C.

How does a newbie lawyer make partner in such a short time?

“The timeframe [for becoming a partner] is not set in stone, and differs based on the law firm. I was in a small firm, and there were only six partners in it. When you work for a larger law firm, the timeframe for becoming a partner is more set in stone. For a small firm, it also depends on how much business you bring in and how much you’re producing for the firm.”

“The second firm was a mid-size one, with maybe 40-50 attorneys, and that was a lateral move for me. [It] had different levels of partnership, and I was really a junior partner.”

Before long, Kraus left the world of law firms altogether.

“While private practice is much more lucrative, what I really liked about the law was the actual legal work: being in the courtroom, doing trials, research and writing. Once you are partner, you also have to be worried about the business side of the practice.  You’re responsible for generating business, collecting bills from clients, overseeing accounts receivable, etc., and that part of it really didn’t appeal to me.”

By 2006, some 15 years after graduating from law school, Partner Sabrina Setareh Kraus became Judge Kraus and was appointed to the New York City Housing Court. And a great many happy New Yorkers would vouch for her skills and judgement.

One grateful individual is Otto Thompson, now aged 60. In 2013, Housing Court Judge Kraus ruled that he was wrongly evicted from his coveted rent-controlled New York City apartment, because he was not in court on the day of his original eviction hearing. Kraus said that the previous judge had not assigned Thompson a lawyer while Thompson was serving time (for burglary) in New York’s notorious Rikers Island prison.

In another case, Judge Kraus ruled in favor of cab driver Hamidou Guira, who had rented a room in what is known in New York as a Single Room Occupancy (SRO) Hotel. This is a rent-subsidized building in which, if a tenant asks for a lease of six months or longer after staying even a single night, the owner is obliged to offer the room for the subsidized amount. In Guira’s case, that meant paying a paltry $226 a month for a unit that could have been rented for 10 times that amount. The landlord refused to agree to the contract, which is why the case appeared before Judge Kraus.

Satisfying as those cases undoubtedly are to a judge, they were not enough for Kraus.

Last year, after a somewhat contentious campaign in which she faced discriminatory allegations by an opponent because of her Iranian-American origins, Judge Kraus became the first elected Iranian-American judge in New York’s Manhattan to serve on the state’s Civil Court.

“Being on the Civil Court provides you with the opportunity to preside over a greater variety of claims – including assignments in Criminal Court or Family Court – and also makes you eligible to be appointed as an Acting Supreme Court Judge. So it basically provides a greater variety of opportunities as a judge for experience and advancement.”

The New York Supreme Court bench, Judge Kraus says enthusiastically, is where she wants to be next. In the meantime, however, Judge Kraus is determined to remain active in the Iranian-American community to help those who are active in the legal field.

“I certainly identify myself as an Iranian-American – [I did so] as a candidate and [continue to do so] now that I am sitting on the bench. I am a member of the Iranian-American Bar Association (IABA) in New York. By identifying [ourselves] as Iranian-Americans and working with the IABA, we want to be a resource for other Iranian-Americans in the legal profession,” she said.

“It was certainly helpful to me to know that there were organizations interested in supporting Iranian-American candidates for office. Many different ethnicities or cultures look to their communities for support in this regard, and our community is younger than most as far as the time they have been in this country.  So it was very helpful for me as a candidate to connect with the IABA and PAAIA*,” Kraus added, referring to the Public Affairs Alliance of Iranian Americans.

*PAAIA, according to its website, is a nonprofit, nonpartisan, nonreligious organization that serves the interests of Iranian Americans and represents the community before U.S. policymakers and the American public at large.