New York’s top judge Janet DiFiore touts reforms in the state’s courts

Janet DiFiore
Janet DiFiore

Suggesting that a well-run court system helps protect the independence of the judiciary, Janet DiFiore, chief judge of the New York Court of Appeals, called attention to cutting-edge reforms underway in New York’s state courts when she delivered the annual Brennan Lecture on State Courts and Social Justice on March 8.

DiFiore, the top judge for the highest court in the State of New York and head of a system with a $2.3 billion budget, announced an Excellence Initiative shortly after she took office in 2016. The effort evaluates court operations from top to bottom in order to improve the courts’ ability to ensure the just and timely resolution of cases. The initiative has included changes such as establishing the nation’s first opioid intervention court and using technology to better protect the victims of domestic violence.

The reforms of the Excellence Initiative are taking place at a time when courts are under attack by political leaders, DiFiore noted in her remarks. “We find ourselves living in a historical moment—a moment when the rule of law is threatened on many fronts, including unfair and irresponsible attacks on the independence of our judges and on our law enforcement institutions,” she said.

Addressing an audience of judges, prosecutors, faculty, alumni, and students, among others,  DiFiore commended the Institute of Judicial Administration (IJA), sponsor of the Brennan Lecture, for its work involving state courts. “The IJA deserves much credit for prioritizing and focusing scholarly attention on the work of America’s state courts,” she said. “It is indeed in the state courts that the average American interacts with the justice system.”

As the leader of the state’s courts in both administrative and adjudicative matters, DiFiore has been working to improve the efficiency of the courts and implement new approaches to problems such as opioid addiction, and also to provide guidance to the bar and to the public on issues such as the reliability of cross-racial identification.

In 2017, New York State opened the first opioid intervention court in the country, which prioritizes treatment over prosecution in order to save lives. Under this court, charged offenders at high risk of opioid overdose are quickly screened and linked to intensive treatment within 24 hours of arrest, followed by 90 days of daily court monitoring. The district attorney agrees to delay prosecution pending the successful completion of treatment.

DiFiore said she is determined to improve the New York City Housing Court, which she described as one of the busiest and most overburdened courts in the nation. For many New Yorkers, Housing Court serves as the first and only experience that they will have with the justice system. So that the housing court can better respond to increased homelessness in New York City, DiFiore plans to transform the litigation experience through upgrades in court security and new court rules and forms that will ensure low-income tenants have access to legal representation.

Last year the New York City Family Court, which processes 200,000 new case filings each year, became the largest paperless court in the state. The court has implemented new technology to enhance the safety of victims of domestic violence, including a remote order of protection program. Now temporary orders of protection can be filed electronically, and initial ex parte hearings are conducted via videoconference from safe havens.

In the area of criminal justice, a state task force has made a number of recommendations for reform, including expansion of the state’s DNA databank, greater access to post-conviction DNA testing for defendants, improvement of the identification procedures used by police and prosecutors, and legislation requiring videotaping of custodial interrogations by police. In November 2017, the administrative board of the courts adopted a rule requiring judges presiding over criminal trials to issue standing orders advising prosecutors and defense counsel of their professional obligations and responsibilities.

The judiciary can ensure the mission of the courts is respected, said the judge, by constantly reforming and modernizing the administration of justice and by keeping pace with the needs of our society. “When cases languish for years and people grow frustrated about the cost and length of litigation, they feel as if justice is beyond their reach,” said DiFiore, “and it is the rule of law in the end that suffers.”

Posted on March 26, 2018