Advancing the Association’s Mission – by John S. Kiernan

John S. Kiernan

President’s Column, May 2018

There are many ways the City Bar defines itself as a bar association, in a legal profession and a New York community with many great bar associations. The most impressive, though, year after year, is the way our membership, primarily through our committee structure, collectively reinforces in a remarkably decentralized way the animating sensibilities of advancement of the rule of law, fair and thoughtful commentary on important issues, support for enhancement of the administration of justice, and advocacy for good government that are central to this Association’s mission. 

In the past two years, our more than 150 committees crossed 5,000 members for the first time – a huge quantity of people who have made special personal commitments of time and effort to the Association’s body of work. Committee after committee has independently pursued the three-legged goal of convening its members for thoughtful monthly discussions about cutting-edge issues, identifying components of their subject matter that seem likely to be of more general interest to the broader bar and organizing programs to expose the relevant issues to public view and advance the debate, and generation of advocacy pieces to improve the administration or the scope of the law in their subject matter areas. 

The resulting output is dazzling in its scale and breadth. In the past two years, continuing the heightened productivity levels of recent prior years, our Committees sponsored about 750 CLE and non-CLE programs and other events at the City Bar, of almost unimaginable scope and variety. They also produced hundreds of advocacy pieces directed to influencing governmental or public opinion, in the form of about 300 reports or report-type letters to relevant decision-makers, 30 letters to international leaders, nine amicus curiae briefs, 16 transition memos to the incoming Trump administration, written and oral testimony at 10 hearings, a dozen letters to editors and numerous other similar formal communications. Thanks to the terrifically high quality of our committee memberships and the exhaustive vetting processes attached to that effort, the quality of this massive set of submissions has been consistently high. The totality of that work product provides support to the City Bar’s arguable position as our nation’s most prolific and highest quality non-partisan rule of law think tank.

The enormous volume of the contributions makes it difficult to single out particularly noteworthy ones, but let me do an injustice to many of our best contributors by singling out a few. As all of you undoubtedly appreciate, the past year and a few months have been remarkable for their combination of path-breaking progressive sensibility and action in our City and State governments coupled with developments at the federal level that presented important questions about the proper balancing of our institutional commitment to non-partisanship and our defining mission of protection and advancement of the rule of law – as to which, if push came to shove, the rule of law priority remained at all times the highest one of all, as it has been throughout our Association’s existence. The period has witnessed some extraordinary developments, in which the City Bar has tried to play the most constructive role it could. In what history may remember as the seminal legal development of the last two years, our City became the first in the nation – and hopefully an exemplar for others to follow – to pass legislation that will provide counsel without charge to every New Yorker with income under 200% of the poverty line who faces an eviction action, embracing a view of the need for counsel for citizens facing loss of essentials of life who cannot afford to pay for one that we can hope will ultimately achieve the degree of national consensus that now attaches to the right to counsel for criminal defendants. The City Bar contributed not only general supportive advocacy but also an important economic analysis of savings potentially achievable from the reduction of evictions under such a program, and we have recently constituted a Right to Counsel Committee to contribute what we can to the extraordinary complex roll-out of this important new initiative.

Following years of advocacy in which the City Bar was a steady voice, New York at long last also passed raise the age legislation last year, ending New York’s position as one of the last two states still to treat 16 year olds as adults in criminal matters. Our Task Force on Mass Incarceration joined the chorus of responsible voices calling for the closing of the jail at Rikers Island. We continue to advocate for bail reform, particularly to end the unjust scourge of economically discriminatory practices that leave arrested individuals in jail for long periods simply because they can’t afford even the modest bail conditions that others charged with the same conduct are able to get themselves freed by satisfying. And we have advocated for reform of parole evaluation processes, access to personnel records and body cam records of police officers accused of misconduct, and legislation that will empower judges to impose sentences lower than statutory minimums when those minimums are so long that they cause injustice to a particular defendant and are unnecessary for achievement of rational penal goals. 

After great work by our Constitutional Convention Task Force, we came out favoring a convention for the particular purpose of achieving changes relating to voting, electoral fairness, government ethics and organization of the state’s judiciary – subjects that have long been of great importance to our organization, and as to which a convention appeared to represent a highly promising opportunity, but also subjects that, as the ultimate vote confirmed, did not come anywhere near capturing public imagination and passions. Efforts to advance the City Bar’s long-articulated policies in those departments through legislation are continuing.

Our Association displayed its power to marshal volunteer efforts by helping to answer Chief Judge DiFiore’s call on New York lawyers to provide assistance to the victims of last fall’s Hurricane disasters, organizing a training for hundreds of volunteers to help victims pursue FEMA appeals and convening volunteers on a succession of Monday evenings to advise displaced victims of Hurricane Maria with their FEMA-related issues.

Through a newly constituted Committee to Promote Efficiency in Dispute Resolution, we have tried to contribute to the conversations about ways of addressing the access to justice and administration of justice implications from the current reality that litigation consistently costs so much and takes so long that achievement of decisions has become essentially unaffordable for the parties in most disputes. Some of that conversation has played a role in the recent establishment by New York’s Chief Judge and Chief Administrative Judge of a new Advisory Committee on ADR to consider in bold ways a range of possible court-sponsored initiatives to reduce the cost and duration of litigations and improve the efficiency of dispute resolution processes.

We have also spoken out on the rule of law. We sponsored the successful ABA resolution calling on the President to withdraw his original travel ban executive order, wrote op-eds opposing the imposition of case quotas on immigration judges and otherwise advocated for and held convenings on protecting immigrants’ rights. We opposed the Presidential pardon of a sheriff who was found in contempt of court for flouting court orders to stop discriminatorily harassing and violating the constitutional rights of members of a vulnerable minority group. We spoke out on environmental issues, foreign policy issues, many transition issues, criminal justice and sentencing reform, animal rights issues, policy issues regarding Puerto Rico, questions that should be presented searchingly to the proposed Attorney General about his commitment to enforcing laws to which he had expressed opposition and to the proposed director of the CIA regarding the legality of conduct in which she reportedly engaged in the past.

It’s difficult to capture the degree to which this summary just scratches the surface. The overarching point is that this bar association has continued in the past couple of years, and will continue, to do important work while representing an important vehicle for our members to become and to express themselves as their best selves as legal professionals. And the luckiest part of the equation, for many of us, is that all this worthy work gets packaged in a way that allows us to advance ourselves as professionals and people and to develop lasting and important friendships, rooted in shared values and efforts that add enormously to the richness of our lives and careers. 

So, with that, let me thank you for the opportunity to serve this Association as President, and ask you to join me in celebrating the arrival of Roger Maldonado.

This column was adapted from outgoing President John S. Kiernan’s remarks at the City Bar’s annual meeting on May 15.