2006 Cyrus R. Vance Tribute

Honoree: Hon. Jonathan Lippman

Of the many visions of Cyrus R. Vance was one to ensure that all New Yorkers benefit from fair, just and efficient courts. The Honorable Jonathan Lippman has worked toward accomplishing the goals set by Cyrus R. Vance – ensuring that all New Yorkers benefit from fair, just and effiicent courts.   In January 1996, Jonathan Lippman became Chief Administrative Judge of all New York State courts by appointment of Chief Judge Judith S. Kaye. In that capacity, he oversees the administration and operation of the statewide court system – a $2 billion budget, 3,600 State and locally paid Judges and 15,000 non-judicial employees in over 300 locations around the State, an unenviable task. Judge Lippman is the longest serving Chief Administrative Judge in New York State history.

Among his many accomplishments – with the Chief Judge – has been the tireless effort to establish problem-solving community courts, domestic violence courts, integrated domestic violence courts and drug courts; create specialized commercial and matrimonial parts; open the Family Court to the public; reform of the jury system new rules governing fiduciary appointments; rules governing multidisciplinary practice of law; rules prescribing continuing legal education for all attorneys; and reforms relating to promoting public confidence in judicial elections.

Judge Lippman serves as Chair of the New York State Court Facilities Capital Review Board, and is a member of the New York State Probation Commission. He is the President of the Conference of State Court Administrators, a member of the Board of Directors of the National Conference of State Courts, and a member of the New York State Bar Association.

He grew up in Manhattan and attended New York University, from which he graduated, Phi Beta Kappa and cum laude, in 1965 with a B.A. in Government and International Relations. He received his J.D. from New York University School of Law in 1968, the same year he was admitted to the New York Bar.


Judge Lippman’s Remarks

I am so delighted to be the 2006 Cyrus Vance Tribute honoree, first because it is a recognition from the Fund for Modern Courts, for which I, from a ground level perspective, have the greatest respect.I have seen first-hand the Fund’s long history of supporting and defending our judicial system.We have counted on you – and are counting on you still – to continue the fight for courts that are not only modern, but courts that are truly responsive to societal needs and the world around us, of which we are so much a part.Second, I could not be more pleased than to be the honoree at an event named for Cyrus Vance, whose career, persona and accomplishments I so greatly value, and who I saw so vividly in action 15 years ago when he was tapped by Jack Weinstein to mediate the state court funding dispute – a challenge, I might add, no less difficult than the intractable international disputes that he regularly took on.I also feel very close to his daughter, Amy, who I worked with and admired for so many years during her exceptional service with the Office of Court Administration.

In musing about the subject of today’s remarks, I fixed upon the recent ballot measures in Oregon, Colorado, Montana and South Dakota, all of which were, in the words of a New York Times editorial, “aimed at punishing judges for their official rulings and making them more captive to prevailing political winds.”

In Colorado, for example, voters were asked to amend their constitution to set 10-year term limits for judges, to be applied retroactively, thereby targeting for immediate removal from the bench a large percentage of sitting appellate judges – most of them from a single political party.A more extreme example was the “Jail 4 Judges” initiative in South Dakota, which sought to amend the constitution to strip judges of their traditional immunity from criminal prosecution and from civil lawsuits by disgruntled litigants.

The editorial rightly characterized these initiatives as assaults on an independent judiciary hiding behind the “superficially appealing but profoundly misleading banner of judicial accountability.”While these measures were soundly defeated, they reflect a disturbing trend which is not going away.We have reached a point in the history of the American judiciary where we have to think very carefully about the concept of judicial accountability, because the kind of societal respect and support for the judiciary which used to sustain us in the past, even in the face of sometimes unpopular decisions, has been greatly eroded, as it has for all other public institutions.To be direct, the judiciary no longer sits on a public pedestal.

To so many today, judicial accountability means making judges “toe the line” to the political flavor of the day.As the late constitutional scholar Kermit Hall has noted, “The single most important development in the modern history of the judiciary has been the judicialization of public policy.”Even if one considers this a historically unavoidable development, it has nonetheless made the third branch more visible than ever before, as evidenced by the media’s pervasive coverage of judicial decisions on gay marriage, public school financing, abortion rights and the death penalty, to name just a few.And it has made us more vulnerable than ever before, as public officials and pundits, from every side of the political spectrum, criticize judges and courts in often vitriolic terms; and as increasingly organized interest groups launch campaigns to convince voters that judges, like legislators and executives, are policymakers who need political oversight.

This state of affairs has been exacerbated by the U. S. Supreme Court’s decision in Republican Party of Minnesota v White , which held that the canons of judicial ethics may not bar judicial candidates from “announcing their views on disputed legal or political issues.”Sandra Day O’Connor, who cast the fifth vote in that case, and is now very active in judicial independence causes, has herself apparently now come to regret the fallout from that ruling, as she candidly admitted earlier this month.

The result of White and other recent developments is a new paradigm in which voters are being conditioned to think of judges as just another breed of politician.This has made the stakes incredibly high – not just in New York but all over the country.And there is no end in sight.I think it fair to assume that we will see more measures like those in South Dakota – initiatives predicated on the notion that judges and courts should be subjected to political controls in order to hold them accountable for their powers.And today and in the future, we will hear that term, judicial accountability, used in that context over and over again.

Of course, anyone who follows the courts closely knows that, from time to time, every judge and court system – state and federal – will be criticized, often harshly and unfairly, for unpopular decisions.It comes with the terrain, and many of us in this room have worked together in the past to respond appropriately to such criticism and to put it in proper perspective, whether it’s coming from members of the media or politicians or both.

As Chief Administrative Judge, I am keenly aware of another dimension of judicial independence and accountability, one that goes to our very ability to govern ourselves autonomously as an independent branch of government.Personal experience over the last decade, here and around the country, has shown us that outside criticism and dissatisfaction with controversial decisions can quickly transcend our adjudicative acts and lead to inappropriate intrusions into the judiciary’s internal governance powers or even to retaliatory erosions of court funding.This danger is especially great if we are seen to fall short in effectively managing our affairs or meeting the needs of those we serve, or if we have been ineffectual or too passive in educating the public and our partners in government about our accomplishments, needs and challenges.

That is why, under Chief Judge Kaye’s leadership, we in the New York courts have consistently worked to enhance transparency and accountability in a wide range of areas, whether it be merger of the courts, reforms of the jury system, the judicial elective process, improving access to justice and indigent defense services, ensuring justice for children and families, fostering commercial courts, promoting public trust and confidence, overhauling the fiduciary appointment system, or most recently, reforming the Town and Village Justice system.

These reform efforts are critical because they both improve the quality of service to our citizenry and serve the broader goal of impressing on the public mind that we are totally committed to good governance and real accountability – not to political ideology or public opinion polls, but rather to the rule of law, to fairness and efficiency, and in the end, to our only client, the public we serve.It is that kind of public credibility, that store of reputational capital, which is our very best guarantee of a strong, independent and vibrant judiciary capable of withstanding the inevitable highs and lows that all court systems must endure given the central and inherently controversial role we occupy in our tripartite system of government.

In looking for examples of how we are promoting judicial accountability – and, thus, independence – on an everyday basis in New York, with a Chief Judge who has no peer, I certainly had the option of picking and choosing from a very, very long litany of reform initiatives that have kept us both rather busy during my own 11-year tenure as Chief Administrative Judge.

And as a point of personal privilege, let me just pause here to say: could anyone be more blessed than I am to have worked day in and day out for over a decade with Judith Kaye, our remarkable and inspiring leader of the New York Judiciary, who has set the standard for state courts and for court reform for the entire nation?I am so grateful to her for setting the bar so high for all of us in the New York courts, and for the opportunity to share with her in the monumental reforms she has brought to our court system.

Upon reflecting on these reforms and initiatives, and on what judicial accountability means to us in New York, I would focus now on our problem solving justice innovations, such as drug treatment courts, community courts, mental health courts, and domestic violence courts – because they are so fundamental to the notion of being responsive to, and gaining the support of, the people and communities we serve throughout this City and State.

This is an area where, thanks to Chief Judge Kaye’s leadership, the creativity of our Center for Court Innovation, and the hard work of Judge Kluger and so many others, we have succeeded in building broad public support for the judiciary.In fact, Legislators of both parties, from every corner of the State, compete for the court system to open problem solving courts in their districts.It is this kind of public support that can help us survive unpopular decisions and serve as a counterweight against those who are trying to define us according to their own narrow parochial or political agendas.And we have done it by revamping the very heart of what we do – by transforming the court process.

Many people are still not that familiar with problem solving justice.The problem solving approach modifies court processes to address the underlying problems that are really driving our massive caseloads and contributing to widespread recidivism.In the problem solving mode, the judge is not just a detached and distant arbiter who manages the process and then issues a decision, pronounces guilt or innocence or imposes a sentence.Rather, the judge directly interacts with the people appearing in court and uses his or her judicial authority not just to punish them but, just as critically, to change their future conduct to improve the quality of life in our communities.

Look at most courts dealing with a nonviolent offender’s drug addiction.Invariably, that addiction is a background issue.In a drug court, it’s at the very heart of the process.Research tells us that offenders in court-ordered drug treatment succeed at twice the rate of those who voluntarily enter treatment.This means that we don’t have to waste scarce resources prosecuting, defending and incarcerating the same people over and over again.It means that these men and women can return to their families and be around to raise and provide for their children.It means that we have fewer children growing up in at-risk, unstable homes or in foster care – among the surest predictors of negative life outcomes.

Integrated Domestic Violence Courts (IDV Courts) following the “one family, one judge” model, judges are promoting more informed, coordinated and effective decision making, improving victims’ safety and access to justice, and strengthening offender accountability.In neighborhood-focused community courts, judges are partnering with prosecutors, defenders and local stakeholders to target quality-of-life offenses and ensure that offenders are not only swiftly sentenced to repay the neighborhood, but are also linked to the services they need to overcome the problems underlying their behavior.And judges are working in Mental Health Courts to order and monitor mental-health treatment as an alternative to incarceration.Judges are working in so many difficult and often experimental contexts to forge better outcomes for litigants and society – in criminal, family, civil and housing courts, in conventional court settings and in newer modes more akin to ADR or mediation.

The judicial role and mindset have changed in new and different ways.Judges are being asked to look at each case and each litigant as a problem to be solved and not just another case to be processed, and to look beyond the immediate case in front of them and think about the big picture and larger patterns of behavior.We are rethinking and re-engineering the way we do business to better serve the public – with no apologies.

Indeed, the problem solving revolution has enabled us to better understand what it means to be an accountable court system in the twenty-first century.We have an obligation to treat each court case in a meaningful fashion, because it’s very clear that our citizens and communities expect much more from the courts than impressive sounding statistics.They know that what happens in our courts really matters to them.It affects the quality of their lives, the quality of their children’s lives and the very essence of life in their communities.

In view of these expectations, judicial accountability and independence are not just scholarly abstractions in the New York courts, but real, everyday concerns.The bottom line is we have to put judicial accountability into forms and contexts that the public can tangibly see and understand.And initiatives such as problem solving courts are doing just that, because when they help us solve the societal problems we confront in our courthouses, they help us solve the problems we face in our neighborhoods, and as a City, State and nation.

Debates over the proper role of the judiciary are inevitable and will wax and wane based on the issues of the day.But what cannot wax and wane, what has to move forward continuously, is our own commitment to being accountable – open to new ideas, pro-active, engaged, responsive to communities and to the people who enter our courts seeking justice.This is the judicial accountability that we in the New York courts are talking about.

The problem solving experience just underscoresfor us how a commitment to accountability through court reform is the best answer to those who argue that judges are just another breed of politician who must be brought into line with the latest public opinion poll.By being truly accountable, by reforming the courts to create a modern, fair and efficient system that is proactive and interactive with the society around us, we will provide the framework for the public to judge us.

Our commitment to the countless landmark reforms undertaken during Judith Kaye’s tenure provide the context against which individual adjudicative decisions, controversial or not, should be viewed.Court reform gives us credibility, strengthens our independence and helps insulate us from the most current political winds.I feel very privileged to have played a part in so many of the advances we have made in the New York State courts, and I am so pleased that the Fund for Modern Courts has consistently been such an important and supportive partner – a true stalwart – in our court reform efforts.I salute the Fund for its commitment in this regard, which is so critical to the state courts, and I could not be more grateful to you for today’s Cyrus Vance Tribute.

site by iKnow