Ann Pfau
Ann Pfau (NYLJ/Rick Kopstein)

As chief administrative judge in an unusually stormy era, Ann Pfau was renowned for her steely competence, grace under pressure and capacity to handle crisis with dignity, agility and finesse.

She piloted the court system through devastating budget cuts and layoffs, as well as cutbacks in services, and endured the worst and most contentious years of a long and bitter stalemate over judicial compensation. At the end of the May, after devoting her entire professional life to the courts, Pfau eyes retirement with the same quiet, unpretentious poise that defined her career.

Pfau, now 66, was 27 years old and had two young children when she graduated from Brooklyn Law School in 1985—she has a bachelor’s degree from Wells College and a master’s from Columbia University—and embarked on a career in court administration, much of the time working side-by-side with now Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman. She began as an assistant deputy counsel with the Office of Court Administration, secured an appointment to the New York City Criminal Court by Mayor Rudolph Giuliani in 1997. Pfau later served as deputy chief administrative judge for management support, administrative judge for the Second Judicial District and first deputy administrative judge.

In 2007, Chief Judge Judith Kaye made Pfau the first female chief administrative judge in state history, a post she held for 4 1/2 years while simultaneously maintaining a commercial caseload as an acting Supreme Court justice. Pfau returned to the trial courts full time in 2011 and served as Statewide Coordinating Judge of the New York Medical Malpractice Program. In recent years, Pfau authored the medical malpractice litigation column for the Law Journal.

Q: The burnout rate for chief administrative judge has always been high, and few of your predecessors kept the job for more than a couple of years. What makes it so demanding?

A: It’s a job that has a lot of moving parts and competing demands—overseeing the operation of the trial courts, lobbying the Legislature about bills, putting together and lobbying for the budget, supporting the Administrative Board of the Courts, working closely with the bar and supporting the judges and non-judicial staff, as well as trying to streamline operations. It’s always a challenge to bring the different groups together, particularly with so many varying points of view. Sometimes the only thing you can do is smile and listen. Everyone has something constructive to contribute, and you have to hear them. The long hours also take their toll, from early morning meetings in Albany to evening events. Even those rare evenings at home can be spent on the phone with a perceived or real emergency.

Q: You held the position for 4 1/2 years—longer than most—and during an extraordinary time of severe budget cuts and the tension created over the 12-year stalemate on judicial salaries. Which issue was more difficult to deal with, and why?

A: For me personally, the layoffs that we had to impose after difficult budget cuts were devastating. I was in the courthouses on the last day of work for many staff, and we had some very emotional goodbyes. These were great people, wonderful employees, and through no fault of theirs they were out of jobs that they had done well—that day was the absolute bottom. The courts are still suffering.

The stalemate on judicial salaries was also very difficult for everyone—it was so patently unfair and so frustrating not to be able to fix it. Chief Judge [Judith] Kaye and I spent many, many long nights in Albany, and we all worked around the clock to rally the bar and the business community to our support—for which we were so grateful. And, of course, Judge [Jonathan] Lippman was working on this issue nonstop, with all of his legendary energy.

Q: The Special Commission on Judicial Compensation was formed to ensure that judicial salaries are objectively reviewed and adjusted at regular intervals. Whose idea was that, and what was involved in getting it implemented?

A: We had been seeking an independent commission on judicial salaries for many, many years as a way to de-politicize the judicial salary process. This had worked in other states, and there was no reason it couldn’t work here. Like any legislation, getting the commission concept implemented was a challenge involving continuous lobbying. The judges really contributed to our success by coming to Albany and lobbying the Legislature with us. They were great sports to spend so many Tuesdays in Albany, often just saying yes on the phone when I would call and ask them to help. This was truly a group effort.

Q: What did you learn about dealing with the Legislature?

A: Patience.

Q: How did you handle the “too little too late” backlash after you finally secured judicial pay raises?

A: I think that this was a normal reaction after having to go so long without an increase—12 years without even a cost of living increase was just unfair. I understood and shared in their frustration.

Q: You did a lot of work to advance pro bono and access to justice. What were the overarching goals, and were they achieved?

A: Between Chief Judge Kaye and Chief Judge Lippman, concern for access to the courts was always a prominent issue for all of us. Judge Kaye’s establishing specific offices in the courts where unrepresented litigants can get assistance in navigating the system was a big step forward. And, of course, Judge Lippman’s focus on increasing civil legal services allows more and more litigants to be represented.

Q: You worked with two chief judges. How were the administrations similar and how were they different?

A: I actually worked for three chief judges—Judge Kaye, Judge [Carmen Beauchamp] Ciparick, and Judge Lippman. All of them worked non-stop at achieving their goals for the Judiciary, with an endless commitment. Judge Kaye was a true problem-solver, always making the Judiciary more responsive to the needs of every day New Yorkers. I am so grateful to have had the opportunity to work with her and learn from her that you should never accept the status quo and always try to make things better. It was my honor and pleasure to work for Chief Judge Lippman for many years, and I have to say that he is truly sui generis—”in a class of his own.”

Q: After stepping down as chief administrative judge and becoming a trial judge, you reportedly created a series of self-imposed “judging 101″ rules. What are they?

A: The best advice I received when I went to the trial bench was to just start trying cases, which I did immediately. I was lucky enough to have seasoned judges send me their tips for success, which I certainly needed. Things like: the record is your best friend, when you don’t know the answer take a break and call someone you trust, ask the lawyers to brief an issue if you are undecided, and always make sure you look out for the jurors. It was all great advice that I greatly appreciated.

Q: What exactly was your role as Statewide Coordinating Judge of the New York Medical Malpractice Program?

A: Before I left my position as chief administrative judge, we had identified medical malpractice cases as being particularly appropriate for early settlement, and we received a federal grant to pursue early settlement in three counties in New York City. Beyond the scope of the grant, Chief Judge Lippman and I thought this was an approach we should expand to other locations. My role was to work with the bar and the administrative judges on implementation, and to track our results.

Q: What was accomplished?

A: We now have early settlement for medical malpractice in the entire NYC metropolitan area, and in Erie and Monroe Counties, covering the overwhelming majority of medical malpractice cases in the state. The approach is not identical in each location, but there are specific judges who are specially trained in the medicine and who work with the bar and the insurers to identify cases ripe for early settlement. The culture is really changing as to how to manage these important cases.

Q: What reforms or changes do you think are necessary in medical malpractice litigation?

A: Anything that we can do to streamline the process would be helpful. When cases go on for so many years, everyone suffers—the plaintiffs, the doctors who are in limbo, and the insurers. It still takes much, much too long.

Q: You’ve spent virtually your entire legal career in court administration—any regrets?

A: Far from regrets, I think that I have been incredibly fortunate, particularly as a woman coming up through the ranks and rising to the position of chief administrative judge. I have seen the Judiciary from every perspective, been able to visit and learn from just about every court in the state and never, ever been bored!

Q: What’s next?

A: There’s an exciting world that my husband and I are ready to explore, and some writing to do. Courthouse thriller, maybe?