Academic journal article Albany Law Review

Albany Law Review Symposium: Refinement or Reinvention, the State of Reform in New York: The Courts

Academic journal article Albany Law Review

Albany Law Review Symposium: Refinement or Reinvention, the State of Reform in New York: The Courts

Article excerpt

FEBRUARY 10, 2006

I'd like to begin by explaining my presence, as well as my absence, today.

First, my presence. The Law Review's invitation was an irresistible one. To be part of a program on state government reform--what an exciting subject for me in my administrative and judicial roles as Chief Judge, to say nothing of my interest as a citizen. I was intrigued also by the opportunity for me to step back and look at the reform process within the Judicial Branch with as much objectivity as I could muster. With my day-to-day calendar being what it is, I don't have much opportunity to do that. And it is always a pleasure to visit the Law School, a second home here in Albany.

That the Court of Appeals is in Session this week and next partly explains my absence this morning, and my inability to linger with you through the afternoon. Our court conferences every morning throughout the Session, as we did this morning, and I now have a second week of fascinating cases ahead to prepare. "Fascinating cases" are another reason I feel uncomfortable joining in this afternoon's discussion. Some of our decisions may be on the table today, being mercilessly dissected; of even greater concern, you may be addressing issues that are on their way to us, and I don't want to have to disqualify myself. And sadly, the death of former Court of Appeals Judge Matthew Jasen requires that I travel to Buffalo to attend his funeral tomorrow morning. So with your indulgence, I would like to tell you about some ongoing and proposed reforms within the Third Branch, and some of the tools we use to pursue them--and then I plan to head off to the airport, along with a briefcase filled with next week's cases.

I should say right at the outset that, while decisions of the state's high court are obviously part of the process of reforming government--that is what checks and balances are all about--I will most decidedly not be discussing our cases, but rather will leave that to others. I will stick to reform of the Third Branch, which is a sufficiently large and indigestible subject. Just last Monday, in my State of the Judiciary message, I put an entire courtroom to sleep covering only highlights of 2005. (1)

It seems appropriate to begin by introducing myself and my institution. I grew up in Monticello, New York, graduated from Barnard College and New York University Law School, and practiced commercial litigation for twenty-one years in New York City law firms in cases involving mergers, acquisitions, securities fraud, breached contracts, and the like. I dreamed large to be sure, but never fantasized that I might someday head the Third Branch of New York State government. In 1983 came the miracle of my appointment to the Court of Appeals by Governor Mario Cuomo, and ten glorious years later, a second miracle: Governor Cuomo appointed me Chief Judge, a 14-year term that regrettably draws to a close in March 2007. With the position of Chief Judge of the Court of Appeals came a second title, a second box of stationery--Chief Judge of the State of New York--and new duties as head of the Judicial Branch. That role includes oversight of more than 360 courthouses across the state, 16,000 employees, 1,200 state-paid judges, case dockets that number in the millions annually, and a budget hopefully always equal to our awesome responsibilities.


Being Chief Judge means leading the Judiciary, which as we all learned long ago is a separate, co-equal branch of government. Obviously intrinsic to the faithful exercise of the judicial function is the separation--the independence--of the Judiciary to assure complete integrity in its judgments, untainted by "control or coercive influence" of the other branches (2) or by the whim of the majority. Judicial independence is essential to our system of checks and balances, essential to protecting our fundamental rights and liberties, and thus an essential premise of reform in the courts. …

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