Judge Fisher
Justice Fisher (David Handschuh/NYLJ)

A veteran judge who has championed access to justice for the poor will continue her crusade at a Long Island law school after she retires from two high-level state court positions next week.

Justice Fern Fisher is stepping down June 29 as the deputy chief administrative judge in charge of the day-to-day operations of New York City trial courts and as director of the courts’ access to justice program for the entire state. She has been a judge for 28 years and spent an unprecedented 20 years as a court administrator.

Dean A. Gail Prudenti confirmed that Fisher will join the Maurice A. Deane School of Law at Hofstra University in August as a special assistant to the dean for social justice and public interest initiatives. Fisher will work with administrators and faculty members “to develop and implement a strategic vision to encourage and prepare students and graduates for public interest careers and pro bono service.”

She also will teach courses in landlord/tenant and housing law as well as access to justice, said Prudenti, a former state court system colleague of Fisher’s.

Fisher will be a law school faculty member a year after being a finalist for the deanship of the City University of New York School of Law, which went to Mary Lu Bilek.

Fisher, who turns 63 on July 1, has a reputation for high energy. She said her staff calls her the “pink bunny” after the advertising mascot Energizer Bunny, “which just keeps going and going.” She often keeps going until 9 or 10 at night, but ruefully acknowledged that she’s getting older.

“One can only be an administrative judge for so long,” she said in an interview with the Law Journal.

The judge, who helped steer the court system through “heartbreaking” layoffs and the effects of Hurricane Sandy, said she is putting “crisis management” behind her and looking forward to influencing the careers and thinking of future lawyers.

She said that she welcomes the opportunity to speak her mind more often than do sitting judges, who are expected to remain neutral on the issues.

“I am looking forward to returning to the ability to be non-neutral when it is necessary,” she said. “I have strong feelings about the present direction of this country and wish to contribute towards ensuring all people who live here or want to live here are treated humanely and equally and are able to live with adequate food shelter and health care.”

Overcoming Struggles

Fisher said that she comes from “a challenged household” headed by a single parent who was a victim of domestic violence. On the day of Fisher’s graduation from Harvard Law School, her mother waited until the celebration was over to tell her daughter that their house in Riverhead had been foreclosed, and they would have to move to an apartment in Queens.

The judge said she was one of a relatively small number of 1978 Harvard Law graduates who went into public interest law. She found work as a hearing officer in the city’s rent-control program followed by employment for Harlem Legal Services, the National Association of Black Lawyers Community Organization Legal Assistance Project and the state Attorney General’s Office.

Fisher was appointed a Housing Court judge in 1989 and elected to Civil Court in 1990. In 1993, she was elected to the Manhattan Supreme Court. She was named Civil Court administrative judge in 1996 and to her current positions in March 2009. She was the first director named for the access to justice program. She is paid a single $205,400 salary for both jobs.

Fisher said she has been able to juggle her dual responsibilities, in part, because they are interrelated. She said the courts have been made more effective and efficient by easing the way for thousands of pro se litigants—1.8 million in 2014, down from 2.3 million in 2009.

Fisher’s access-to-justice program strives to find attorneys for low-income litigants, but offers tools litigants can use to navigate their own way through court procedures that she works to keep simple.

Last year, volunteer lawyers recruited, supervised and trained by Fisher’s office represented and advised 11,000 litigants in family, divorce, consumer credit and landlord-tenant matters.

At the same time, there were 1.45 million unique users for a CourtHelp website that offers plain-language forms and other information to New Yorkers who can’t find a lawyer. Through a DIY (do-it-yourself) form, litigants can assemble their own court papers.

Fisher advocates a modified form of “judicial activism” in which judges temper their neutrality with “engagement.” She argues judges should question often-confused pro se litigants to make sure they know what they need to know and have the evidence and proper forms to make their cases.

In the last few weeks of her tenure she was working on guidelines and training for “limited scope” or “unbundled” legal services, under which lawyers take on particular tasks such as research but leave other aspects of representation to the client.

‘Exceptional Leadership’

Former Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman, of counsel at Latham & Watkins, said Fisher is “unique” for her ability to balance two demanding responsibilities. Lippman, who named Fisher to her current jobs, said she knows “every inch of the court system,” and has succeeded “beyond everyone’s expectation.”

Chief Administrative Judge Lawrence Marks praised Fisher’s “exceptional leadership, tireless work ethic and passionate pursuit of social justice.” However, the Office of Court Administration has decided to divide her responsibilities. Justice George Silver will oversee the state trial courts in New York City, while Justice Edwina Mendelson will take over the access-to-justice role.

“Although Judge Fisher was able to balance the two adeptly, there is just too much involved with these critical assignments to expect one person to handle it all,” Marks said. “This is particularly true with the expanded role of our deputy chief administrative judges arising from Chief Judge Janet DiFiore’s Excellence Initiative.”

DiFiore has named Fisher to the courts’ Permanent Commission on Access to Justice. Helaine Barnett, the panel’s chair, said Fisher has been “an invaluable” asset as an ex officio member.

Fisher described herself “a control freak” but said she boosts the morale of her staff by pitching in on every task, ranging from stuffing envelopes to cooking for volunteers.

“We work hard, but we laugh a lot,” she said of her court “family.”

Rochelle Klempner, the chief counsel of the access-to-justice program, said Fisher is a “take charge” administrator whose mind is always active with a knack for cutting red tape.

But Klempner, who has been with Fisher since 1993, said the judge never hesitates to help someone who needs it. “She’s pretty amazing,” she said.