"Good timber does not grow with ease: The stronger the wind, the stronger the trees."
Douglas Malloch (American poet)
Just over one year ago, as I first began my term as chief administrative judge, I stated in my article for this special bar association section of the New York Law Journal that although our court system faced unprecedented challenges, unprecedented does not mean insurmountable. Throughout my first year as Chief Administrative Judge, the people of the New York State Unified Court System proved me rightrising to meet challenge after challenge, from tackling oldest cases to recovering after the devastating natural disaster that was Superstorm Sandy.
Despite facing many daunting challenges, our court system, under the steady leadership of our Chief Judge, has much to be proud of this year. First, courts across the state have begun to develop and implement locally-tailored operational reforms to improve efficiency in case management. In addition, this past summer I joined many of my judicial colleagues from the Appellate Divisions and Surrogate's Courts in returning to the trial court as part of a highly successful effort to help clear scores of older cases.
Second, on Law Day 2012, Chief Judge Lippman announced a new pro bono requirement for admission to the bar, reinforcing our profession's commitment to service and our judiciary's determination to meet the legal needs of our state's most vulnerable citizens.
And, finally, only a few months ago, when our area was devastated by Superstorm Sandy, our court family persevered and pulled together by organizing charitable collections and donating generously to help their colleagues who lost homes or personal possessions as a result of the storm. I will never forget the welcomed sight of the many court employees who came to work despite being displaced from their homes or having no electricity and limited gas, to ensure that the courts could continue to function even amidst such adversity. As I toured the impacted court facilities following the storm, rather than finding despair and grief, I found hope and determination that was truly inspiring.
The experiences of this past year have bolstered my confidence that we will continue to surmount the challenges that lie ahead as we enter another year of great fiscal constraint. Superstorm Sandy not only had a devastating impact on our court family and countless people throughout our region both personally and professionally, but it also took a heavy financial toll on our state, and consequently our judiciary's proposed budget. We have worked hard to modify court operations and cut expenditures not essential to fulfilling our core mission in order to submit a budget that carefully balances the judiciary's obligation to deliver justice to the people of our state, while at the same time being sensitive to our role as a responsible partner in government.
While taking numerous cost-cutting measures in light of the austerity of the times, we remain committed to providing true access to justice for all New Yorkers. As a crucial part of this effort, we have proposed a modest increase in funding to civil legal service providers to help address the tremendous legal needs of low-income families, which have been further exacerbated by the recent storm.
When I first began my term as Chief Administrative Judge, I promised to take a good hard look at court operations, to find better ways to do business and to bring about positive change in our court system. In my first year, we took critical action at the trial court level to adapt to the new economic reality, and our courts are making steady progress in instituting operational reforms to improve the delivery of justice in each district.
Just as the courts have streamlined their operations to resolve cases more effectively and efficiently, it is now time to streamline our court administration in order to provide the support necessary for our courts to function in these challenging times. In our current fiscal climate, with a growing workload and diminished staffing at levels last seen a decade ago, the need for court support is greater than ever. If we are to achieve the court system's critical priorities and ensure that our courts have the tools they need to deliver justice, we must reorganize our court's administrative structurethe Office of Court Administration (OCA).
Over the next several months, this administrative reorganization will involve consolidating departments, instituting a moratorium on certain nonessential services and exploring how to provide crucial services more efficiently. We will be reviewing each and every position to ensure that it is essential to our fundamental work, and, to the extent possible, will consider redeploying OCA employees into the trial courts where the need is greatest. By undertaking a comprehensive top-to-bottom review of each department in the Office of Court Administration, downsizing programs not critical to our core mission, and streamlining our operations, our administration will be better able to fulfill its essential role of supporting the courts as they work to serve the people of our state.
On my most challenging days as Chief Administrative Judge, I am reminded of one of my favorite quotes by Martin Luther King Jr.: "The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy." I believe that the ultimate measure of our court system is how it responds in times of challenge and crisis. Having repeatedly witnessed firsthand the commitment of our judicial and nonjudicial staff, whose steadfast dedication ensures that our court system continues to fulfill its mission in the face of limited budgets and an overwhelming workload, I could not be more proud. The year ahead may be challenging, but by working together and rethinking the way we do business, we will continue to persevere, serve the people of our state, and strengthen our court system for the future.
A. Gail Prudenti is Chief Administrative Judge of the New York State Unified Court System.