By Wendy Dessy, Director of Corporate Social Responsibility
As a board member of Legal Information for Families Today (LIFT), a non-profit organization that helps unrepresented litigants in New York City Family Court, I was proud to help organize a recent panel discussion addressing race and poverty in the New York State Family Court. Moderated by LIFT Executive Director Cathy Cramer, the panelists included the Honorable Edwina Mendelson, Deputy Chief Administrative Judge; former Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson; and Proskauer Pro Bono Partner, Bill Silverman. Secretary Johnson is responsible for a recent report on institutional racism in the New York State Court System, where he characterized certain courts, including the Family Court, as providing a “second class system of justice for people of color in New York State.” Bill Silverman co-authored a recent report on behalf of the New York City Bar Association and the Fund for Modern Courts which addressed the impact of COVID-19 on the New York City Family Court and how the crisis laid bare longstanding inequities. Judge Mendelson is responsible for the Court’s justice initiatives.
Council member, Keith Powers welcomed our guests and John Jay College President, Karol Mason, provided opening remarks.
When asked if he had any trepidation over taking on a report to address racial justice in the court system, Secretary Johnson explained how New York State had the most complicated court system in the country, a system which often seems “inexplicable” to outsiders. Secretary Johnson further emphasized that the courts most likely to serve people of color, such as the Civil, Housing, Criminal and Family Courts, were the most under-resourced and overburdened courts in the State. The court system and its structure was thus itself an impediment to equal access to justice. Moreover, a common theme among many of the Secretary’s recommendations was the sense that programs and offices already exist within the court system to address access to justice but are not prioritized or highlighted enough to make a large enough impact.
Judge Mendelson emphasized the importance of and challenges facing the Family Court, which is where she has devoted most of her career starting as a staff attorney at Sanctuary for Families before becoming a Family Court Judge and then working her way up through the court administration. Child support, for example, is vitally important in preventing poverty but the tremendous volume of child support cases combined with the fact that most litigants are unrepresented in these proceedings create a tremendous challenge to the court system. Judge Mendelson, who is responsible for implementing the recommendations in Secretary Johnson’s report, highlighted recent efforts, including notably the creation of equal justice committees led by the supervising judges in each county.
Bill Silverman addressed the great need for structural reform of the court system and its 11 separate trial courts, urging support for the proposal to amend the State Constitution now before the Legislature. He explained how little has changed since he first started doing pro bono work in Family Court 30 years ago, pointing to great similarities between the recommendations in his recent report and those in so many prior reports on the Family Court. It is time, in his view, for a court structure that elevates the Family Court by expanding its jurisdiction and enabling the court system to allocate resources where they are most needed.
A key takeaway from the discussion was how essential it is that we improve access to justice for all and work together to improve the policies and practices of our under-resourced, overburdened court system. You can watch the panel here.