Judge Jenny Rivera ’85 discusses the role of state courts at LAA Luncheon

Observing that the recent change in national government has brought “a reinvigorated discussion of the role of the state courts in protecting individual rights and access to justice,” Jenny Rivera ’85, associate judge of the New York State Court of Appeals and honoree at the 2017 Law Alumni Association Luncheon, used the occasion to discuss the breadth of issues addressed at the New York State Court of Appeals.

The court, Rivera said, has one of the heaviest dockets of all state high courts. In 2015, the court disposed of 202 appeals, consisting of 112 civil and 90 criminal cases, and disposed of 1,378 motions and over 2,201 criminal leave applications. “Apart from the sheer volume of work, our court has generated leading cases for over a century,” Rivera said. “Within our state, we continue to interpret our constitution broadly to provide greater protections than the US Constitution.”

Rivera pointed to several key cases—both criminal and civil—the court has decided in recent years that had significant ramifications on the practice of law in the state, encompassing areas of the law as varied as people’s right to the remains of a deceased family member, copyright law, and race in jury duty, among others.

In People v. Bridgeforth, for example, the court forbade discrimination in jury selection based on color, ruling that “color is a distinct classification, and that section 13 of New York Civil Rights Law prohibits disqualification from jury service on the basis of race and color—also indicating that race and color are distinct,” Rivera said.

In another prominent case, Brooke S.B. v. Elizabeth A.C.C., the court ruled that same-sex non-biological parents can have the right to visitation and custody of children from a relationship. This case overturned Alison D. v. Virginia M., a 1991 decision preventing non-biological, non-adoptive parents from seeking visitation or custody. “The court does not often overrule its precedent, and overruling is not taken lightly,” Rivera said. “And it is fair to say that the impact of our decision and recognition of same-sex families in New York… cannot be minimized and has already had an impact on families and their children across the state.”

Posted February 8, 2017