Editor’s Note: Michael Miller was sworn in Monday night as president of the New York State Bar Association. Here are his remarks:
Members of this great profession of ours, particularly the members of the organized bar, stand on the front lines protecting, defending—and yes, even expanding—our precious civil liberties and the administration of justice. Our emphasis at the State Bar in the coming year will be on a broad range of topics relevant to those liberties and the effective administration of justice which I will briefly describe.
Personal attacks on members of the judiciary have increased exponentially and as you all know, the judiciary is constrained from responding.
In order to help us respond more quickly and effectively during the 24-hour news cycle when judges are unfairly attacked, or other matters call for prompt response, we are establishing a Rapid Response Advisory Group, which will be led by NYSBA Past President David Miranda.
There is no more important pillar to the foundation of our justice system than the quality of our judiciary. It has long been the policy of NYSBA to advocate for the selection of judges by appointment, rather than by election. However, as long as there are judicial elections, it is vitally important that the process of evaluation is fair and fosters the best judiciary possible.
I have heard from the highest levels of the court system that there are significant concerns regarding the existing evaluation system. Therefore, we are establishing the Task Force on the Evaluation of Candidates for Election to Judicial Office, which will be led by NYCLA Past President Robert L. Haig and former Court of Appeals Judge Susan Phillips Read. This task force will review the various vetting structures that exist throughout New York and will propose best practices, guidelines and minimum standards for review of candidates for election to judicial office and will make recommendations to assist local bar associations and good government groups to ensure that we have the best possible judicial evaluation efforts throughout the State.
A decade ago, former President Bernice Lieber, who is here tonight, established the Task Force on Wrongful Convictions which, under the leadership of former Judge Barry Kamins, issued a truly ground-breaking report in 2009. Judge Kamins and former Court of Appeals Judge Robert Smith will co-chair a newly-empaneled task force to update the 2009 report with recommendations based upon new developments, technology, science, experience, and judicial decisions, and make affirmative recommendations to reduce the likelihood of wrongful convictions.
To build upon the excellent work of our Task Force on Re-entry, we are establishing the Task Force on Incarceration Release Planning and Programs, which will be co-chaired by Scott Karson and Sherry Levin Wallach. This task force will conduct an investigation and recommend state and national policy changes and best practices to help better prepare those released from incarceration to re-enter the community and reduce the rate of recidivism.
Massacres at Columbine, Las Vegas, Orlando, San Bernardino, Sandy Hook, Parkland and so many others… the epidemic of mass shootings that began with Columbine High School in 1999 continues unabated. We are establishing the Task Force on Mass Shootings and Assault Weapons, which will be co-chaired by former Criminal Court Judge Margaret Finerty and NYSBA Past President David Schraver. This Task Force will consider the connection between mental health and mass shootings; the relationship between domestic violence and mass shootings; whether assault weapons belong in civilian hands; and will make appropriate recommendations.
In 1997, NYSBA issued guidelines for the use of paralegals—a lot has changed since 1997. The Task Force on the Role of Paralegals, co-chaired by former NYSBA President Mary Ann Saccamando Freedman, Margaret Phillips and Vincent Chang, will update the 1997 report, explore relevant issues and make recommendations for best practices for the use of paralegals in the context of the modern 21st century law office.
You may have read yesterday in the New York Times about the refusal to disclose the disciplinary records of the policeman who choked Eric Garner to death because of a previously obscure section of New York’s Civil Rights Law, section 50-a. We have established a working group to explore whether that law should be amended, revised or revoked. Former NYCLA president Catherine Christian and NYSBA VP from the 8th Judicial District (Buffalo) Norman Effman will co-chair that effort.
My friends, there is a humanitarian crisis in Puerto Rico of historic proportion. I am appointing a Working Group on Puerto Rico to explore ways through enactment or modification of laws we might be able to assist our fellow Americans in Puerto Rico who are suffering so grievously. Because of the urgency of the situation, I will ask that they report to our Executive Committee as soon as possible with any affirmative recommendations. In the meantime, I have already begun to reach out to bar leaders throughout NY to join me in contacting NY’s Congressional delegation to express our profound concern regarding the crisis in Puerto Rico.
In 1789, George Washington wrote, “The true administration of justice is the firmest pillar of good government.” That was true then and it is just as true today. It behooves all concerned citizens—especially leaders of the legal profession—to speak out against attempts by anyone to undermine the rule of law or diminish this constitutional norm. A few minutes ago, I swore an oath to uphold the New York State and US Constitutions, as well as the bylaws of our Bar Association. My friends, the non-political administration of the criminal justice system is a cornerstone of the most cherished liberties set forth in those two sacred documents. Consistent with my oath, I assure you that we will speak out clearly and unambiguously when the rule of law or constitutional norms are threatened. I will be asking my fellow Bar leaders to join me in this profoundly important defense of our most fundamental constitutional principles. If not us, then who? If not now, then when?
In closing, this is the greatest honor of my professional life. Words are inadequate to fully express how very deeply honored I am to serve as the president of the New York State Bar Association. Thank you for the honor of your presence and the opportunity to serve you and the State Bar.