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Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman – Debra L. Raskin

Debra L. Raskin

President’s Column, December 2015

Do what “stirs your soul,” Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman recently advised a room full of new lawyers, and some seasoned ones, too. He was reflecting on his career in a talk at the New York City Bar Association just weeks before his mandatory retirement on December 31st due to age requirements (based on an outmoded rule established in 1869, but let’s not digress).

His advice sure worked for him, and how fortunate for the people of New York State that what stirred this man’s soul was…the science and art of court administration. Granted, it’s not the first thing most people might expect would ignite someone’s passion. But when the judge describes his epiphany in realizing that all those crowds streaming into the courthouse every day were made up of individuals, each with a unique story and reason for being there, you understand that a fixation on nuts and bolts could not be more important. The better the system operates, the more people who can receive justice and the more quickly they can receive it.

The judge “got religion” about this, as he puts it, by chance. He grew up on the Lower East Side with no delusions of grandeur beyond earning an honest living, graduated from Stuyvesant High School, NYU, and NYU Law, and, as he has said, “wandered into the courts” by applying for an open position as an entry-level attorney in the Law Department in Supreme Court in Manhattan.

He found he had a knack for court administration, then discovered his passion for it. When knack meets passion, good things happen and attention is paid. He was tapped to be a court administrator, then chief clerk at the NY Supreme Court. Chief Judge Judith Kaye then named him Chief Administrative Judge, and  Governor Paterson in 2009 appointed him Chief Judge.

Normally for someone to reach the summit of his profession requires a remarkable level of personal ambition. But what we seem to have here is a case of someone who reached the top step by step and for no other reason than that he was just so exceptionally good at his job. I can just imagine that at each level, when a job opened, the administrative judges and court staff looked around and said, “Who else? Who knows better than Jonathan what goes on in this place?”

A couple of months ago, I had the honor of testifying before the Chief Judge’s Task Force to Expand Access to Civil Legal Services, which the Chief Judge recently, and deftly, transformed into the Permanent Commission on Access to Justice. I thanked him (as well as Chief Administrative Judge Gail Prudenti and Task Force/Commission Chair Helaine Barnett) for their leadership in securing $85 million in the Judiciary Budget for civil legal services, and urged the Commission to stay the course toward the original goal of a $100 million increase in annual civil legal services funding.

The Chief Judge has sometimes been called an “activist” for his focus on civil legal services, as if access to counsel is an issue of ideology rather than of morality, ethics, and pragmatism. I think the Chief Judge would agree that when having a lawyer or not can determine success or failure in court, and when having representation on both sides makes the system run more efficiently, there’s nothing particularly activist about working to ensure that everyone receives equal justice. In the context of court administration, such advocacy is called doing your job, and it’s entirely of a piece with what the judge has been doing since he was in that entry-level position in the Law Department. And his commitment on these issues certainly resonates with the point he made the other day to the new lawyers, that the legal profession is about “values as well as torts and contracts.”

At the New York City Bar Association and the City Bar Justice Center, we are also grateful for the Chief Judge’s commitment to pro bono and the rules he has championed to increase the number of hours lawyers devote to it. Last spring, the Justice Center hosted two Pro Bono Scholars in the program the Chief Judge created to allow students to devote their last semester of law school to performing pro bono service for the poor through an approved externship program. It was gratifying to see how well creative programs like this can work, as our Scholars received training as they provided much-appreciated support to elderly and veteran callers needing legal assistance.

The Chief Judge has also worked tirelessly to try to raise the age of criminal responsibility in New York State to 18 from 16; to implement jury reform, problem-solving courts, and drug treatment programs; to modernize the local justice court system; to improve matrimonial litigation; to require mandatory continuing legal education for attorneys; to publish court records on the Internet; and to lead the courts’ response to 9/11.

The thread through this 43-year career of stellar work in the court system is focus and passion. “Being a lawyer is about helping people and serving others,” Chief Judge Lippman told the new lawyers. “Find something you love,” he said, and “work every day to make the ideal of equal justice a reality.”