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Four distinct themes highlighted the annual Law Day celebration yesterday at Court of Appeals Hall in Albany, N.Y. Chief Judge Judith S. Kaye focused on equal justice, and used that concept to promote court restructuring, pro bono work and increased compensation for assigned counsel. Lieutenant Governor Mary O. Donohue touted a proposed constitutional amendment that would afford New Yorkers a right enjoyed by citizens of 27 other states — the power to by-pass the Legislature and enact or repeal laws through the process of initiative and referendum. Attorney General Eliot Spitzer spoke of the worrisome crisis in confidence affecting major institutions — such as the accounting and investing professions, charitable organizations and the church — and proposed a heightened level of accountability. And New York State Bar Association President Steven C. Krane called for a renewed commitment to military prowess and urged Congress to “give our armed forces the tools they need to protect us.” Before bringing the show to her own court, both literally and figuratively, the Chief Judge stood on the steps of the New York State Capitol with advocates for victims of domestic violence and presided over a rally for court reform. Chief Judge Kaye is working feverishly on a court consolidation proposal that would merge several tribunals and simplify the trial court system. At the heart of her plan, which requires a constitutional amendment, is a new initiative to integrate domestic violence cases. The Chief Judge’s proposal would elevate the status of nearly all domestic violence and related matters to Supreme Court and largely codify the Integrated Domestic Violence Court pilot programs that she instituted. Longtime advocates for court restructuring are hoping that component, and the fact that it is embraced by a vocal and politically important constituency — women’s rights advocates — will finally bring to fruition a restructuring effort that has spanned several decades. In the past, the initiative has been undermined by partisan considerations, and the reality that court restructuring is hardly an issue suitable to sound-bite politics. Although the proposal would affect virtually every litigant and lawyer, it is not a topic that would usually result in a capitol rally. Yesterday, surrounded by victims and advocates, the Chief Judge made it rally material. “This is the first rally in the history of the entire world for court reform,” Chief Judge playfully told an applauding and laughing audience of several dozen. “And never before in the history of the world has there been a cause as just and as important as this one.” COURT REFORM Chief Judge Kaye’s proposal, along with the domestic violence component, would result in a tri-tiered court structure including Supreme Court, Surrogate’s Court and District Court. Family Court, County Court and the Court of Claims would be merged into an expanded Supreme Court and family law cases would be heard in a new unified matrimonial division. A fifth department would be added to the Appellate Division to alleviate some of the burden on the Second Department. “It is long overdue that we reform our archaic, splintered, fragmented court system,” the Chief Judge said at the rally. “There is nobody on earth who better knows all the jurisdictional barriers and hurdles that have to be overcome than a litigant who is determined to whipsaw a victim of domestic violence and make it more difficult for her to achieve justice.” Also speaking at the rally was a woman identified as “Orchid G.,” who described her rat-in-a-maze quest for justice in New York’s courts. “I had custody, visitation and cross order of protection cases in the Family Court before one judge,” she said. “I had a child support case in the Family Court before a hearing examiner. I had a case against my husband in Criminal Court, and he had a case against me in Criminal Court before a different judge . . . . In five years, I had 14 separate cases in seven different courtrooms before seven different judges.” Immediately after the outdoor rally, the Chief Judge joined the formal Law Day celebration at Court of Appeals Hall. There, she told a capacity crowd that “our nation’s promise of freedom and equal justice is an empty one if our justice system is not accessible.” She spoke of the shrinking panels of assigned counsel due to antiquated compensation rates. Chief Judge Kaye also called on attorneys to embrace their pro bono commitments the same way they responded to the Sept. 11 attacks, and again called upon the Legislature to “unify, simplify, restructure our court system” by passing a court restructuring bill. CITIZEN INITIATIVE Lieutenant Governor Donohue, a former Supreme Court justice, promptly endorsed the three major themes articulated by the Chief Judge: increased compensation for assigned counsel, pro bono and court restructuring. However, the Lieutenant Governor spoke primarily on initiative and referendum, a major goal of the Pataki Administration this year. Earlier this week, the Senate passed a bill that would enable voters to enact or reject laws independent of the Legislature. The Lieutenant Governor said the measure, which like court restructuring would require a constitutional amendment, is needed in an era when the Legislature is “occasionally, or frequently depending on your perspective . . . unresponsive to the needs of the electorate.” “Is there any greater justice than that derived from a responsive government?” Lieutenant Governor Donohue asked. The Lieutenant Governor — responding to concerns of “fear-mongerers” and “naysayers” that the proposal would in large measure replace a representative government with a plebiscite — said initiative and referendum provides an appropriate check and balance on legislative inertia. “Opponents of such a measure tell us we should be fearful of initiative and referendum [as] ‘direct democracy’ which could hamstring the operation of the executive, legislative and judicial branches,” Lieutenant Governor Donohue said, adding that historic supporters of the concept include Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson. “Like them, I do not fear our citizens, nor should any one of us.” ACCOUNTABILITY Spitzer, whose action against Merrill Lynch for allegedly privately disparaging stocks it was recommending to millions of investors, discussed the declining confidence in major institutions. “Our gradual dissipation of expectations for institutional behavior has now created a crisis of accountability, as the failure of these institutions to abide by proper standards has been exposed to the general public,” the Attorney General said. He referred to the Enron/Arthur Andersen controversy, the Merrill Lynch matter, the scandals of Hale House and the American Red Cross and the apparent sex-abuse cover-ups by religious leaders. “For too long, we allowed these institutions to focus inward, without regard for the effect of their actions on those they were duty-bound to serve,” Spitzer said. “We allowed them to trade on the trust we placed in them by accepting a model of self-policing whose currency was not in accountability but in assurances. Those assurances were too often hollow, and that currency has now been substantially devalued.” Spitzer suggested that the various scandals threaten to weaken standards of acceptable behavior and diminish public confidence in and expectations of important institutions. “[O]ur legal system can serve as a bridge over the chasm of distrust separating the public from these institutions,” Spitzer said. “The faith that was once reserved for these institutions and their policies of self-policing will be restored by a renewed reliance on our legal system and its insistence on accountability.” Krane, president of the State Bar, said the events of Sept. 11 illustrate all-too vividly the need for a strong national defense, which “makes it possible to live in a nation governed by the rule of law.” He said the legal profession plays a key role in preserving freedom, and that role should be recognized and proclaimed. “We should never be hesitant to praise lawyers,” said Krane, of Proskauer Rose in Manhattan. “We members of the bar are the bridge between the rule of law and the system of justice we treasure. We belong to a great and learned profession . . . . Let us not forget the good we have done, and the greatness of which we are capable individually and collectively.”

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