Together We Stand Tall With New York For Children And Families

Sunday, August 1, 2004 - 01:00

The Honorable Judith S. Kaye

I am very pleased to be here, to Stand Tall with New York and all of you, especially on an evening that honors pro bono contributions. The people you honor tonight elevate us all and make us proud, as New Yorkers and as lawyers. Serving the public good - pro bono publico - is the theme of the program, and an excellent one.

Having myself been a commercial litigator for a couple of decades, I feel a special connection to you. But for the miracle of my appointment to the Court of Appeals back in 1983, undoubtedly I would be standing out there among you, whether as corporate counsel, or as a patron, or a sponsor, or a supporter of tonight's event, hopefully even as an honoree. I can never forget my days at the Bar, whether in a law firm or on the staff of corporate counsel - they were great. But you haven't asked me here to reminisce about myself. And whether we're standing tall, or short, the fact is we're standing. So I'll get right to the substance of my remarks.

First and foremost, I am here to congratulate all the honorees, most especially my friends at MFY Legal Services, on being singled out to receive your Pro Bono Award. Of its many achievements, tonight MFY - with a forty-year history of helping New Yorkers - is being honored for its contributions to people in need as a consequence of 9/11.

Chances are you already know of all the phenomenal work of volunteer lawyers to help victims of 9/11. I call it the shining hour of the New York Bar. It's truly inspiring to read about the thousands of lawyers who volunteered in our City and region and around the country - from private practices of all sizes, corporate law departments, the public sector, legal service organizations, academia, law students. To this day, their stories about finding ways to help human beings access bank accounts and insurance proceeds so they could pay the rent, or obtain critically needed health benefits, or deal with immigration and social security authorities, are heart-rending. The Bar's response was simply staggering. It showed the true character of our profession.

The fact is people need life's essentials - food, clothing and shelter - but in today's world they also vitally need legal services. Apart from one-on-one assistance, wonderful new programs followed in the wake of 9/11, materials were published, web pages established and task forces organized. There are so many examples of the energy, imagination and commitment of the Bar that helped lead the City and nation through its darkest days.

Coordination, communication, cooperation - those became the themes for the volunteer efforts. Better identification of client needs and more efficient allocation of resources. Technology used in new ways, including Internet links between lawyers and clients. A gatekeeper model of "one-stop shopping" for clients. Back-up mentors for lawyers volunteering in unfamiliar practice areas.

We focus tonight on 9/11. But for many families, every day is also a time of life-and-death crisis in their lives. And vital legal services are simply not there for them.

Tonight I want to talk very briefly about two subjects close to my heart - Family Court and Housing Court - not the everyday venue of corporate counsel I know, but each in its own way a significant factor in the quality of life in New York. When Carole Basri (Executive Director, Greater New York Chapter of the Association of Corporate Counsel) invited me here to address you, instinctively I thought of subjects like our Commercial Division, and jury reform, and publishing court records on the Internet, and electronic filing, and 21st century courtrooms. All of these are matters of consummate interest for me as Chief Judge of New York, and I am certain for you as well. I thought of wraparound mortgages, and continuing guarantees, and the rule against perpetuities - all of them subjects of consummate interest for me as Chief Judge of the State's highest court.

But Carole assured me that, on an evening focused on New York, 9/11 and pro bono, it would also be perfectly appropriate for me to say a word or two - even to corporate counsel - about adoptions and homelessness. And I do so knowing full well that the best stories about these courts, indeed the best stories about pro bono, are told by those who have lived them - another great reason for actually doing pro bono work.

Together, Family Court and Housing Court account for more than one million cases a year in the courts of the State of New York. Astounding, isn't it? That's several million people whose lives are being reordered by these courts. So my "word or two" to all of you is: Come visit. Come help.

Let's focus for a minute on the children. In the State of New York today, we have about 32,000 children living in foster care. More than 22,000 live in the City of New York alone. Many of them, we know from the statistics, will grow up in the custody of the State, never knowing a permanent home or family, going from foster care at 18 or 19 to what we call "independent living." Can you imagine your own child being put out into the world at 18 or 19, or even 21, for "independent living"? Many of these children will graduate from Family Court to Criminal Court, returning to the custody of the State in our prison system.

While Family Court is always on my mind, my attention was riveted a year or two ago by the fact that we had 6,068 children right here in New York who are freed for adoption, parental rights terminated, and yet they are languishing in foster care. Surely, as a society, we can do better by these children, can't we? Every child deserves the stability of a permanent home, and we can help achieve that goal.

Among the most gratifying things we've done lately in government is to join hands - the courts, various agencies and others - to find ways to expedite permanency for children in foster care. And here I am most grateful for the help of MFY in overseeing a brand new Pro Bono Adoption project and to Pfizer for helping to launch it.

What a tremendous experience this has been, to see how many ways thoughtful, caring members of the public can help. They can serve as volunteer counsel. Even nonlawyers can serve as Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASAs), who assist the courts by investigating and monitoring cases involving children in foster care. They can serve as instructors at our Education and Information sites, as volunteers in our PEACE programs, volunteers in our Court Children's Centers, donors of books and toys and clothing. And yes - Carol said it would be OK for me to say this - maybe, best of all, they can become adoptive parents.

Until my very last moment as Chief Judge, I fully intend to work, together with as many of you as possible, to find more ways to promote the welfare of the children who are growing up in our courts. It's their future, but it's ours too.

Much the same can be said of our Housing Court, where every day hordes of people crowd into our courtrooms, 90% or more of the tenants unrepresented as they fight eviction and homelessness. Last winter, the number of homeless in New York City exceeded all prior levels - more than 40,000 people each night, more than 16,000 of them children, with "new homelessness" of even middle-class New Yorkers. There are so many opportunities for lawyerly, and even nonlawyerly, pro bono skills here - like pro bono representation, assistance at our Resource Centers and service as mediators to help parties work out their disputes.

I noticed just this morning a New York Times front-page article on formulating new housing policies to prevent and avoid homelessness. Isn't that a sensible idea? We know that avoiding homelessness promotes better health, better education, greater employability and greater stability in a person's life. And I couldn't help thinking that there are so many ways thoughtful, caring members of the public and the profession - like you - could help here too, in finding and implementing innovative financing schemes for affordable housing and other ideas for solving problems like these that afflict our fellow citizens.

Invariably, people involved in pro bono work have so many great stories to tell of the enormous satisfaction they derive from using their unique skills to help human beings in crisis. I am reminded of one corporate lawyer from a large firm who called his work in Housing Court "one of the most gratifying experiences" of his entire life and, a great place to hone his corporate lawyer skills, since it involved "six parts negotiation, three parts creativity and one part law." I encourage you to talk to people who have been involved in pro bono work. However esoteric their daily practices may be, I think you'll find that they love above all to talk about their pro bono successes.

After 9/11, we learned the importance of collaboration. We learned that we can do much more, and we can do it better, when we work together - the courts, bar associations, lawyers, businesses, public agencies, not-for-profits. I hope that together we can continue to stand tall with New York for the children and families of this great City and State.

The Hon. Judith S. Kaye is Chief Judge of the State of New York. This article is based on a speech given at the Stand Tall for New York reception of the Greater New York Chapter of the Association of Corporate Counsel on June 16, 2004.