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Remarks from Judge Lippman

New York Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman received the Chesterfield Smith Award at the 2013 PBI  Annual Conference reception on March 15.  Read Judge Lippman’s remarks below.

What a beautiful introduction from a spectacular person who I so admire and respect and I can’t tell you how much I appreciate the kind words, particularly from you, Esther.

Really nothing gives me more pleasure tonight than to receive the Award named after Chesterfield Smith, a champion of the legal profession of pro bono and the quality of justice in our country.  And particularly at the Pro Bono Institute, which to me is the leading advocate in the country for pro bono.  There is no entity more influential and again, Esther is such a great leader and has such passion and commitment to me represents the state of the art in pro bono in this country by far.  And I am so grateful to her, her assistance to me and to our state of New York in attempting as best we can to close or narrow the justice gap in our state.

Like so many others in the economy that we face today, the judiciary and New York State as a whole has been so impacted by the fiscal crisis, without doubt there is a justice gap in New York and in this country between the resources available and the dire need for civil legal services for the poor, the indigent and people of low income.  At best we are meeting 20 percent of the need for legal services for the poor.  In New York City eight of nine people who come to the Legal Aid Society are turned away because of the lack of resources.  Think about that.  In such a fabulous organization – eight of nine people.

As the head of the judicial branch in our state, I am acutely aware of my own responsibility both on an ethical basis to pursue justice.  The responsibility that we all have going back to Biblical times and as a Constitutional mission that we have in the judiciary to foster equal justice and access to justice.  If the judiciary and the profession do not stand up for those in need of legal services, for those who cannot afford them, no one else will.  These are people fighting for the necessities of life, the roof over their heads, their physical safety, the well-being of their families, their livelihoods.  These are the fundamentals that everybody is entitled to.  To be sure, bold action is needed to address this issue.

There is a crisis in this country and in our individual states and that’s why in New York we have put significant money into the judicial budget because what happens to those, the most vulnerable in society who need legal services, is not tangential to what we do in the judiciary.  If we cannot produce equal justice in our courts, we might as well close the courthouse doors.  It has no meaning if that’s not the very essential thing that we’re supposed to be doing.

And that’s why we have a template in New York that we’ve developed called Hearings Around the State to try to define the justice gap, to articulate it, to change the dialogue in our state about why this is important.   And the money that we’ve gotten for civil legal services – $40 million this year and $55 million in the budget that we hope to be approved next week – is wonderful and it’s great, and it is by far the most in the country, but you know what, it is the tip of the iceberg.  It doesn’t even begin to address the need.  What’s clear to me is that there’s not enough money in the world to meet the justice gap that we have and public funding is great, but what’s necessary beyond doubt is the volunteer pro bono efforts of the bar.

The bar in New York has been terrific and the D.C. Bar is terrific.  In New York they contribute over 2.5 million hours, but there are untapped resources that we have to identify.  I think first and foremost of those is the new generation of lawyers.  We have to instill in those lawyers or prospective lawyers the core values of our profession.  First and foremost of those core values is service to others.  This is what it means to be a lawyer.  It has to be embedded in the DNA of every person who becomes a lawyer in this country.  It just seems to me that all of us have responsibility to think out of the box, to be creative in addressing this critical problem that’s just as important as every other thing that we find essential: schools and housing and hospitals and all the things that are important to us.

So I view my role and all of our roles to lead in this area particularly the judiciary and the profession, and not to take a vote about it, and not to take a poll but to lead.  That’s how we got to the 50-hour pro bono requirement in New York before anybody, before any law student can call themselves a lawyer.  We have to bring together all of our constituents, the law schools, the bar, the providers.  It’s so important because we all share the common values that are really rooted in the nobility of our profession.  Pursuing justice is what we all do in our own way.  That is why I’m proud that on Law Day of last year, we were the first state in the country to require pro bono service for anyone who expects to be a lawyer in our state.  It is our hope that it will be replicated around the country.

Let me tell you, none of these things are without controversy.  When we did this, the New York Times did a series of articles and had letters from all over the country [about] what’s good or bad about it and that’s what led me to Esther.  In the New York Times, they reported that Esther has great respect and admiration for bold.  And bold things are things that Esther really admires.  In that same article, Esther said, “and if they want to do it right, New York, this is what they should do.”  I recognize a lifeline when I see it and I grabbed it.  With Esther’s help painted in the canvas for this new pro bono requirement in New York.  I think we’ve rounded the edges and done it in a way that everyone can embraced something which is so basic and fundamental.  It’s been a privilege to work with you Esther, and it’s given me such pleasure.  Rest assured there’s more new and more bold coming from New York and coming soon.  Because it’s so essential that we all join with the Bob Juceams and the Bruce Kuhliks and the Esther Lardents and everybody here and so many others to ensure the fundamental notion that every single person, rich and poor, high and low alike, is entitled to equal justice under the law.  This is the mission for all of us – each and everyone of us.  I’m so proud to be here tonight and to receive this Chesterfield Smith Award for my small part of this mission that we all have to do together.

Thank you so much, it’s a pleasure.