Judicial Independence: Is It Impaired or Bolstered by Judicial Accountability?

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Good afternoon. It is so wonderful to be here among friends, colleagues, students, faculty, and alumni. What a delightful day it has been! I met with all the ILs and their professors. I visited the clinics and was so very inspired by the quality of their work and their professionalism. I also met with the Ron Brown Prep students and the LALSA students and was again inspired by this wonderful next generation of leaders in our communities and in the profession. Lunch with the faculty was fun, informative, and stimulating. It always helps us in the courts to be aware of the concerns of the Academy, and I thank you, Dean Simons, for the opportunity to speak with the faculty.

And, how wonderful it is for all of us and the Law School that our Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman is here and Associate Judges Victoria Graffeo and Susan Read. Welcome to St. John's.

What a great honor it is for me to stand before you today as the fourth Honorable Joseph W. Bellacosa Distinguished Juristin-Residence. I will do my very best this evening to contribute in a meaningful fashion to an important and sometimes misunderstood subject: that of judicial independence and judicial accountability.

My discussions with the law school earlier this year were memorialized in two letters, the first from the Honorable Joseph W. Bellacosa, my good friend and truly distinguished juristteacher-dean, who wrote: "You will be the first alum (alumna) to honor Alma Mater and to honor me." The truth is, Judge Bellacosa and Alma Mater, it is you who honor me. The second letter was from then Acting Dean Andrew Simons, who wrote: "I look forward to the next wonderful installment of this enriching program."

Well, Andy, tonight I will continue the conversation and the discussion begun so eloquently by my sister and everphenomenal former Chief Judge of the State of New York, the Honorable Judith S. Kaye. She spoke about new court initiatives and innovations resulting in the creation of problem-solving courts and laid before us a formula for saving lives and improving public safety while delivering justice.1 The following year, we heard from the Honorable Frank Williams, Chief Justice of Rhode Island, who, like Judge Kaye before him, did a full day with students and faculty culminating in a colloquium interspersing his judicial commentary with his Lincoln expertise involving the suspension of the writ of habeas corpus during the Civil War and its application to contemporary executive/judicial branch tensions. And then, of course, earlier this year, we were graced with a visit from former American Bar Association President and Michigan Supreme Court Justice Dennis Archer, who addressed the role of the bar in helping to protect the independent functioning of the judicial branch.

Tonight, we will continue the tradition of this stellar program that celebrates our former Dean Bellacosa's many contributions to the law school, the judiciary, and the legal profession. As a result of some brainstorming with Judge Bellacosa and others, I have chosen to continue the discussion of judicial independence and its corollary judicial accountability, and I particularly want to focus on how it is enhanced by an effective system of judicial discipline which we in New York are so very fortunate to enjoy.

First, however, a disclaimer on my part. Before being named to the Court of Appeals in 1993, I served at the behest of the Honorable Governor Mario Cuomo as a member of the New York State Commission on Judicial Conduct. I served from 1985 to 1993 as a judicial member, of whom there were four of eleven members, mostly lawyers, appointed by the Governor, the Chief Judge and the leaders of the State Senate and Assembly. During those eight years as a Commission member, I was privy to every complaint filed with the Commission. I signed off on the many hundreds that were dismissed as being meritless on their face, sought to investigate others, voted charges on some, assigned referees to hear and report, heard arguments on motions to affirm and disaffirm such referees' findings, and ultimately made determinations on questions of misconduct and penalty to be imposed. …