At the end of December, Justice Jacqueline W. Silbermann, administrative judge of the New York County Supreme Court, Civil Branch, and statewide deputy chief administrative judge for matrimonial matters, will retire from the bench.
Justice Silbermann spent a number of years in private practice and she will return to private practice in January. But the bulk of her career has been spent in public service. Since becoming a judge in 1984, she has sought to make a contribution to the public welfare because that is the kind of person she is – someone more interested in the well-being of others than in her own. She will leave behind a court system that is notably better for her having been here. Justice Silbermann is proof that there should never be any doubt of the capacity of individuals to make a difference, even in an organization as large and far-flung as ours.
She has been an exemplary jurist, fiercely dedicated to the cause of justice, diligent in her handling of cases, efficient in the management of her inventory, thoughtful, scholarly and fair. She has created a body of important precedent in the matrimonial field, where she is renowned for her expertise. Whatever case she has handled, including bitterly-contested matrimonial matters, she has entertained the arguments of the parties with an open mind and without bias. The soundness of her judgment has been evident in many sensitive cases that have come before her, such as a challenge to Governor George Pataki’s policy of incarcerating sex offenders after the conclusion of their sentences or, an application to bar the City Council from voting on a measure to extend term limits for city officials. Although she possesses the utmost respect for our appellate courts and is delighted when a colleague ascends to that high level, her “true love” has always been our courts of original jurisdiction and all of the habitues thereof: trial judges, trial attorneys, court clerks, court reporters, court officers, court attorneys, county clerk staff, and all parties in need of the court’s attention.
Her executive talents were noticed early on by the court system’s leadership. Judge Silbermann served as the administrative judge of the New York City Civil Court from 1989 to 1996, where she worked tirelessly to make access to justice a reality for all litigants. Since January 1997, she has served as statewide administrative judge for matrimonial matters and later statewide deputy chief administrative judge for such matters. Since March 2001, she has served simultaneously as administrative judge of civil term of Manhattan Supreme Court. Throughout her tenure as administrative judge, she has maintained her own part with a substantial inventory and has presided each day over the court’s referee assignment part; in other words, for almost eight years, she has been doing not one job, but three, in addition to her statewide responsibilities in matrimonial matters.
Justice Silbermann has continually sought ways to improve the operations of the court. Even under the most daunting circumstances, of which there have been many, she has never become discouraged or complacent. She has taken the lead in promoting electronic filing, believing that electronic filing and digital records should predominate throughout our court system. Approximately 128,000 cases have been e-filed to date, many of them in our court. She has written and spoken often in favor of e-filing. It was her leadership that led to our court’s construction of our Web site, a repository of a vast array of information about the operations of the court, as well as a statewide Commercial Division Web site, and one for the litigation coordinating panel, the operations of which are housed in our court.
In collaboration with County Clerk Norman Goodman, Justice Silbermann has led our court’s public access project, one of two in the state that places online an unprecedented volume of case and county clerk information integrated with scanned images of key case documents, through our Supreme Court Records On-Line Library (SCROLL), developed at 60 Centre St. by her staff.
She has introduced improvements in our motion operations, including a system for adjournment of motions by e-mail. She experimented with a system of conferencing by telephone. She has led the way in reducing waiting time to trial, including in the difficult city case inventory. She has championed revamping and modernization of our guardianship and fiduciary support office. Standard guardianship forms have been developed and made available on our Web site and cases have been processed more quickly and efficiently. The court has collaborated with the New York County Lawyers’ Association to provide assistance in Article 81 matters to lay guardians (family members, generally, of incapacitated persons), who are often bewildered and overwhelmed by their role and their duties, as well as the emotional impact of their situation.
She has continued our efforts to reach out to the general public, including through our matrimonial support office, which handles more uncontested matrimonial cases than any other court in the state, and our office for the self-represented, the first such office in a court of superior jurisdiction in the state.
She established a center for complex litigation using, among other things, electronic filing and case management orders governing groups of related cases. She has expanded the orientation efforts of the court so that judges, attorneys and staff undergo a transition that is as easy as possible.
Justice Silbermann has promoted dialogue between the court and the bar. She expanded the number of standing advisory committees to the administrative judge, which meet regularly and provide opportunities for candid discussion and ideas for improvements. There are now separate committees for tort, medical malpractice, guardianship, tax certiorari/condemnation, and Commercial Division practice and alternative dispute resolution initiatives. Their work has led to concrete advances in court operations. She has presided over a statewide committee that has made significant improvements to matrimonial practice.
Justice Silbermann promoted compliance with the then-new matrimonial rules set forth in Uniform Rule 202.16 and worked with administrative judges statewide to promote assignment of highly qualified justices to the matrimonial parts. She developed educational materials and operational initiatives to improve the handling of these cases and annually presents a three-day seminar for justices and court staff.
When she first became administrative judge at 60 Centre St. she indicated that she would have an open-door policy and that she has done ever since. Despite the whirlwind of activity in which she has been engaged for 20 years, she has always made time for judges, staff attorneys, clerks, court officers, county clerk staff and everyone else. She understands the pressures on judges and has sought to serve as a counselor, helper and friend, while also explaining their concerns and needs to the central administration.
She is renowned in the courthouse for the warmth, kindness, good humor and sincere interest with which she treats every person on staff. There has surely never been a more down-to-earth administrative judge. She has turned her belief that every person deserves to be treated fairly and with respect, listened to and encouraged, into a practice that has proven to be the most productive approach to the administration of a system whose critical mission is to advance justice, fairness and the rule of law. She has demonstrated beyond dispute that you can follow her way and at the same time achieve a vast amount of good for the public whom we serve.
We have had the privilege and pleasure of working with the judge every day for almost eight years. We have seen up close the skill with which she has handled challenges that have often been far more complex, sensitive and seemingly intractable than may be appreciated. Administration in a large and complicated organization like the Unified Court System can be a difficult, thankless and frustrating undertaking, but we have seen the equanimity and good humor with which she has approached difficulties and disappointments. Court administration is not a job for the faint of heart or the pessimistic and she is neither.
By all that she has done and the way she has done it, she is an outstanding exemplar of excellence on the bench and in judicial administration. The public is often skeptical and cynical about government, but it would be less so were it possible for the citizens of the county and state to know that there are public servants such as Judge Silbermann quietly laboring in the public’s interest on a daily basis for decades. Although we know that year’s end will bring for her a change of scene and a different role, and that she will remain active in the profession she loves, the end of her judicial career is nevertheless a great loss for the people of New York, and on a personal level, an acute loss for all of us who have had the good fortune to work with her. She has earned a place in all of our hearts. She leaves with the gratitude, respect, and affection of everyone who works in New York County Supreme Court, in the matrimonial parts, and in our wider court system, who will always think of her as she has been every day during all of these years – a model of all that a judge should be.
John F. Werner is the chief clerk and executive officer of New York County’s Supreme Court, Civil Branch, and Robert C. Meade Jr. is special counsel to the administrative judge.