New York State of the Judiciary: we [must] provide justice to our citizens in ways that are meaningful, equal for all, and absolutely fair and impartial

The National Center for State Courts has an archive of 2011, 2010, and previous years State of the Judiciary addresses located here.

The New York State of the Judiciary speech has a unique history in that it is often delivered not in the legislature but in the courtroom of the state’s highest court (the Court of Appeals) with the judges present. 2011 was no exception as Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman delivered the address on February 15.

Highlights of the the Chief Judge’s speech (full text here) included:

We assemble at a formative moment for the future of the State of New York and for the system of justice that we cherish. Our State, our communities and our Judiciary all face historic challenges.

ACCESS TO CIVIL JUSTICE FOR POOR AND LOW-INCOME NEW YORKERS: I formed a Task Force to Expand Access to Civil Legal Services in New York…The Task Force found that we are meeting, at best, 20 percent of the civil legal needs of the poor and working poor in New York, and recommended that we include $25 million for civil legal services in the Judiciary Budget for the coming fiscal year, as part of a four-year effort to increase civil legal services funding in this State by 50 percent….What we are recommending is a measured, common sense approach that prioritizes our resources, particularly in light of today’s fiscal realities — we cannot provide a lawyer to every poor person with a legal problem, as much as we would want to. What we are seeking is to provide legal representation to those struggling to access life’s most basic necessities, such as shelter, food, and personal safety.

INDIGENT DEFENSE: In the coming year, the focus will be on assisting and evaluating our State’s multiplicity of counsel assignment systems, and supporting creative, cost-effective delivery systems that meet the fundamental constitutional right we are charged with enforcing. We will seek the participation, cooperation and input of all who are affected by and have an interest in strengthening New York’s indigent defense system, particularly county and State officials.

CIVIL JUSTICE: CONFRONTING THE FORECLOSURE CRISIS: Despite the increase in pro bono volunteers who have stepped up to provide legal assistance, 63% of homeowners appearing for mandatory court settlement conferences are unrepresented, and the percentage is even higher in New York City. It is ironic that we generally provide assigned counsel at arraignment to people caught in public with an open can of beer — and rightly so — but if those people appear in court because they are about to lose the roof over their heads, they are on their own. To begin to address this disparity, we will establish a program to ensure, over time, that all homeowners who cannot afford a lawyer will be provided with legal assistance or representation at foreclosure settlement appearances. The settlement conferences mandated by law several years ago are considered the defining moment in the foreclosure process: the first opportunity for many defendants to learn about their legal rights and protections, about settlement options, and about the court process that lies ahead. It is the moment when having a lawyer at the table matters most.

CRIMINAL JUSTICE: WRONGFUL CONVICTIONS: Mistaken eyewitness identifications are the leading cause of wrongful convictions and the Task Force made that issue its first priority, developing a comprehensive set of best practices to improve the accuracy and reliability of eyewitness identifications in New York. The Task Force’s work on other wrongful convictions issues that must be addressed, such as post-conviction DNA testing, is ongoing, and we certainly look forward to additional recommendations in the months ahead.

SENTENCING COMMISSION: New York’s sentencing laws have not been revised in more than four decades. It is critical that we modernize our sentencing laws and practices to reflect the best and latest knowledge about public safety, individualized punishment, reduced recidivism, successful re-entry and rehabilitation, and the rights of crime victims…Last October, I appointed a permanent Sentencing Commission for New York and charged it with performing a top to bottom evaluation of our sentencing laws.

JUVENILE JUSTICE: Governor Cuomo has proposed closing underutilized youth prisons, and the monies saved can be reinvested in meaningful community alternatives. The Judiciary has made its own commitment to reform, improving our Family Courts in so many ways and supporting Mayor Bloomberg’s efforts to promote alternatives to detention in New York City. These efforts are beginning to bear fruit…A stronger probation system would also enable us to build on our successful efforts in New York City to accurately assess the risk that any given young person will reoffend. We need to expand this risk assessment model to the rest of the State so that judges can make more informed decisions in each case. And we must work to match risks to responses — providing judges with sentencing options that are calibrated to all young offenders, whether they be low, medium or high risk.

PROTECTING JUDICIAL NEUTRALITY: For many years, judges have operated under an ethical duty to remain unaware of their campaign contributors. Candidates might see names on campaign stationery or attend cocktail receptions with contributors present, but contributions were made to committees run by others and the candidates did not see donor lists. It was hardly a perfect system, but on the whole it worked because a judge’s lack of knowledge of campaign contributors was credible….That is why today I am announcing the following. The Administrative Board of the Courts, the court system’s policy making body that includes myself and the Presiding Justices of the four Appellate Departments around the State, has approved for public comment a new rule that assures that no case will be assigned to a judge where the attorneys or parties in the case contributed $2,500 or more within the previous two years to the judge’s campaign.

JUSTICE FOR JUDGES: REFORMING JUDICIAL COMPENSATION: Today I am delighted to report significant progress in transforming New York’s broken judicial compensation system. First and foremost, thanks to the vision and leadership of the Legislature and former Governor Paterson, a permanent quadrennial judicial compensation commission was enacted into law to take judicial pay out of the political arena…While every one of us must be prepared to make sacrifices in this era of tough choices, judges have begun their 13th consecutive year of sacrifice — and that’s just too much based on any objective standard.

We do not have the option of picking and choosing which cases we will hear, of turning people away, or of turning a deaf ear to those who come to our courthouse doors seeking justice. Rest assured that today, tomorrow, and in all the days to follow, the New York State court system will never stray from our constitutional mission of pursuing justice for each and every citizen of this State.

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