Making the Case
Trailblazing lawyer defends city’s best interests
by JACK KRAMER / photography by TODD FAIRCHILD
Most people, after working more than a half-century in their chosen field and in their mid-to-late 70s, would be enjoying their retirement, thinking about early bird specials, planning their next vacation and just enjoying slowing down a bit.
They wouldn’t be working long hours in an office, attending meetings – some that start early in the morning and some that end late at night or, if it’s a Board of Alders meeting, sometimes the following morning.
But that isn’t John Rose.
Don’t misunderstand: Rose, who is the city of New Haven’s top lawyer, former top lawyer for the city of Hartford and the first African-American partner in a major Connecticut law firm, loves talking about his two children, two grandchildren and hobbies (golf and watching theater/arts), but he fits all those things in the little bit of spare time he does have.
You see, he’s still got a lot of work to do.
“I love it. I love the job,’’ is his simple answer. “It’s the most wonderful, awful job you can have,” he jokes.
Asked if he sees himself slowing down anytime soon, Rose has a one-word answer: “Nope.” He then politely asks his interviewer if there are any more questions.
“I’ve got someone waiting for me,” he explains, as he says goodbye and gets back to work.
Rose’s background as a lawyer is immense and groundbreaking. He was recognized last year with the George W. Crawford Black Bar Association’s Visionary Award, and was honored in 2016 by the Connecticut Bar Association for his work in the state, which spans more than 50 years.
After graduating from Yale Law School in 1966, he went to work at New Haven Legal Assistance Association. Two years later he joined Ribicoff, Ribicoff & Kotkin, where he broke ground when in 1972 he was named the first Connecticut African-American partner.
In 1978, he left Ribicoff to found Lounden, Byrne, Schechtman, Slater & Rose, where he was responsible for business and client development. It grew to 30 lawyers. In 1984, he joined Levy & Droney as partner.
In 2004 he went to work as Hartford corporate counsel. In that position, Rose led efforts to settle a lawsuit filed against city police after a fatal shooting. He also wrote numerous legal opinions for the city’s leadership, including one that asserted for the first time the City Council did not have subpoena power.
He went back to private practice a few years ago, but in 2015 came to New Haven as acting corporation counsel. Early in 2016, the acting was removed from his title, and he currently leads the city’s legal, fair rent and disability services departments.
As the city’s top lawyer, Rose serves as New Haven’s chief legal adviser and attorney for city officials, departments, boards, and commissioners in matters relating to their official duties. The lawyers on his staff provide legal advice and are responsible for handling any litigation or contract matters that relate to city departments.
Just as important to Rose as his “official” job description is his role as one of the first African-American lawyers in the state to make a name for himself.
“I consider part of my job, my responsibility, to mentor young black lawyers,’’ Rose says during an interview in his New Haven City Hall office. “I also try and mentor women lawyers, other minorities. I feel a need to reach back, to pull up those that I can help down the path I’ve traveled in any way I can.’’
While Rose has tried hundreds, if not thousands of cases in his career, there is one he says really stands out in his mind.
It was when he was practicing law in Hartford and he represented a party that had an interest in a piece of property in Farmington known as “The Golden Triangle.”
A well-known developer had tried to, in Rose’s words, “buy off” his client’s interest for $10,000. Rose said after reviewing the deal his client and the developer originally had, he sued.
“The court awarded us a prejudgment remedy of $46 million based on the incredible value the fully developed property had attained. Less than a year later the case settled for $5 million cash to my client,” Rose says proudly.
He grins when asked the “difference’’ between being the top lawyer for the cities of New Haven and Hartford.
“New Haven is a wickedly political town,’’ he says. “Everybody thinks they can walk into the mayor’s office and get a toy.”
He adds: “Everybody’s related in this town. That can make it challenging a lot of the time.”
But anyone who knows Rose knows he is a friendly, congenial man who isn’t shaken by the challenges of operating in government service. In fact, his proponents say one of his greatest strengths is his even-handed demeanor.
Rose points out that the mayor – and his or her team – has to be elected every two years in New Haven, while in Hartford the mayor serves a four-year term. Meaning, he said, “In New Haven, you are constantly campaigning. It never ends.”
Rose is a fan of Mayor Toni Harp, who recently was overwhelmingly elected to her third term, and the feeling is mutual.
“The remarkable and productive longevity of attorney John Rose is even more impressive to me when I remember how volatile the national climate was 50 years ago – that amid widespread racial tension at the time it was a particularly rich, and risky, time for an African-American attorney to try and get started,” says Harp.
“Throughout the 50 years since, attorney Rose has been a thoughtful, deliberate, and reliable presence in Connecticut legal circles, always helping young attorneys along the way, because he has not forgotten his own beginning struggles,” says Harp.
She adds, “There’s serendipity now in John’s public service as Corporation Counsel in New Haven, the city where he first studied law more than 50 years ago. The city is most fortunate to receive legal interpretation, advice, opinions, and representation from this esteemed, venerable member of the Connecticut Bar.”
Another admirer is Mike Carter, chief administrative officer for the city of New Haven who, like Rose, is a Dartmouth College graduate.
“I first met John Rose when I was a student at Dartmouth and selected to be on a trustee-appointed committee looking at student life at Dartmouth,’’ says Carter. “John was one of the alumni representatives and it was so refreshing to meet an African-American alum who was a practicing attorney and highly engaged in the practice of law as well as alumni and civic issues.”
Fortunately for Rose’s proponents and those who depend on his service, the attorney doesn’t seem to be slowing down anytime soon.