Building Bridges to the Public

As the preceding pages have hopefully demonstrated, we have worked hard over the past year to build a court system that is modern and innovative. While these objectives are important in achieving our larger mission of fair and effective justice, a third goal is also critical: building a court system that the public understands and respects.

An independent judiciary is the bedrock of a free and fair society. To remain impartial, judges must stay out of the fray, apply the law and let their decisions speak for themselves. Our courts must be independent, yet they must not be perceived as remote. The strength of the judiciary depends upon public trust and support, and if the public misinterprets "out of the fray" as "out of touch," our ability to perform our constitutional role is weakened. One of our biggest challenges is thus to balance our independence with the need to build bridges to the public, so that the citizenry understands the challenges we face and knows that the work we do warrants their trust and confidence.

Bridges to the public should go two ways, of course, allowing the courts not only to provide information about their work but also to hear citizens' concerns. In 1997, the New York courts undertook a number of programs to build such bridges throughout the State.

Judicial Advisory Councils

As part of a four-state initiative sponsored by the National Center for State Courts, local Judicial Advisory Councils have been established in four areas in the State: Nassau and Queens Counties and the Seventh and Eighth Judicial Districts (covering Cayuga, Livingston, Monroe, Ontario, Seneca, Steuben, Wayne and Yates Counties and Allegany, Cattaraugus, Chatauqua, Erie, Genesee, Niagara, Orleans and Wyoming Counties, respectively). Working with the local Administrative Judge, these Councils focus on a number of issues of concern to their local communities, such as improving the conditions of court facilities, jury service and increasing public understanding of the courts.

Specific projects pursued last year included development of a "Teen Court" in Monroe County, exploration of ways to improve media coverage of court issues in the Eighth Judicial District, work on a Children's Center for the Nassau County District Court, and educational programs for Queens citizens in such areas as landlord-tenant and domestic relations law.

Speakers' Bureau and Court Tour Programs

Our Speakers' Bureau arranges for judges and court employees to address community and religious groups on topics relating to the courts. Last year, Judge Abraham Gerges made special outreach efforts on behalf of the Association of Justices of the Supreme Court to New York City Community Boards and Precinct Community Councils. Eighteen speaking engagements in two months' time followed. Through our Court Tours program, over 10,000 students and adults visited New York City court facilities, escorted by specially trained court tour officers.

Working with the Schools

Education on law-related topics enriches a school's curriculum and ensures a new generation of well informed citizens. A recent survey of all the bar associations in the State revealed that each year, hundreds of lawyers participate in a broad array of programs directed at increasing students' understanding of our legal system, from mock trial and moot court competitions to Òlawyers in the classroom' sessions and courthouse tours.

These volunteer programs are most effective when accompanied by a school curriculum that includes teaching about basic concepts relating to courts and law. In an effort to promote the development of such a curriculum for the New York City schools, Chief Judge Kaye and members of the Education Committee of the Association of the Bar of the City of New York met with New York City Board of Education Chancellor Rudolph F. Crew. Following that meeting, a one-year pilot project was created that will bring law-related education to 18 seventh-grade classes located in ten schools throughout New York City. Coordinated by the Board of Education in partnership with the City Bar, the pilot curriculum covers topics such as the role of courts in government, mechanisms for dispute resolution and constitutional law. It also includes presentations from volunteer lawyers to reinforce class lessons. Thus far, teachers have expressed great satisfaction with the pilot effort.

Franklin H. Williams Commission on Minorities

Since its formation in 1991, the Franklin H. Williams Commission on Minorities has worked to ensure racial and ethnic fairness in our State court system. Under the leadership of Judge Lewis L. Douglass, the Commission serves both as a sounding board and a voice for minorities in the courts, from judges and nonjudicial employees to attorneys and litigants.

Presentations by the Commission on issues of ethnic and racial fairness are now a regular part of the annual judicial training session and training for new judges. In addition, the Commission operates a Speakers' Bureau to educate high school students and local community groups on minority issues relating to the courts.

In 1997, the Commission issued a five-year report on its activities entitled "Equal Justice: A Work in Progress" A pioneer among judicial commissions devoted to the issue of racial and ethnic fairness, the Commission has served as a model for similar task forces in approximately 20 other jurisdictions.

The New York Judicial Committee on Women in the Courts

The New York State Judicial Committee on Women in the Courts was established in 1986 in response to a task force finding that "gender bias against women litigants, attorneys and court employees is a pervasive problem with grave consequences." Its mission for the past twelve years has been to change conditions that deny women equal justice, equal treatment and equal opportunity.

In the past year, the Committee, chaired by Judge Betty Weinberg Ellerin, has continued its efforts to strengthen the network of gender bias and gender fairness committees throughout the State. Working under the aegis of Administrative Judges, these local committees focus on projects tailored to local issues. The Committee also paid special attention in 1997 to family law issues, which have particular significance for so many women litigants. To this end, the Committee successfully advocated for the establishment of specialized matrimonial enforcement parts and has formed a subcommittee to study procedures for the review and referral of complaints the Committee receives regarding family law issues.

In 1997 the Committee also produced a second edition of its booklet "Fair Speech: Gender Neutral Language in the Courts" launched a newsletter and presented educational programs on domestic violence issues for Town and Village Justices.

The Center for Court Innovation

A public/private partnership of the Unified Court System and the Fund for the City of New York, the Center for Court Innovation was created to improve public confidence in our courts by nurturing and sustaining new experiments in the delivery of justice. These experiments are designed to re-shape "the people's courthouses"- those courts that citizens interact with on a daily basis, such as the criminal courts, housing courts and family courts.

The Center has played a major role in some of our most successful innovations to date: the Midtown Community Court, the Brooklyn Drug Treatment Court and the Brooklyn Domestic Violence Court. Most recently, the Center has assisted with the development of the newly opened Manhattan Family Treatment Court. Upcoming projects include the Red Hook Community Justice Center, which is slated to open next year. By focusing on collaborations between courts and their community-based partners, the Center is helping us build innovative solutions from the ground up.

"Too often, the burden of processing massive caseloads makes it impossible for judges to reflect on the complex systemic problems that come before our courts. But issues like addiction, domestic violence, child neglect and quality-of-life crimes - to name a few - force us to question business as usual. What the Center does is to take a page from the private sector, functioning like a research and development unit for the courts. By investigating emerging problems and formulating programs in response, the Center unleashes the creative energies of people throughout the system."

John Feinblatt, Executive Director, Center for Court Innovation