Chief Administrative Judge Ann T. Pfau, who has managed the state court system through 4½ exceptionally tumultuous years, yesterday informed colleagues that she will step down on Dec. 1 to take over a new medical malpractice program and try cases in her home borough of Brooklyn.
She announced her plans in a conference call with the state’s administrative judges. A successor was not immediately named.
Judge Pfau’s tenure on Beaver Street coincided with rancorous and often bitter controversy over judicial salaries, early retirements, layoffs and budget cuts.
Yet the first woman to hold the highly stressful and often thankless job said in an interview that she “wake[s] up every day thinking I am the luckiest person in the world to have this job.”
“This is the career of a lifetime,” Judge Pfau said. “But there comes a time when you need to do something else. I want to be a judge.”
Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman said Judge Pfau (See Profile) approached him several months ago expressing a desire to move to a new assignment, but agreed to remain in the position through the resolution of the judicial pay dispute and the submission of the next budget, which is due Dec. 1, the day she departs.
“She has been a great leader and is someone who has, by any standard, gone through the wars and come out as a strong, effective and inspiring leader for the troops,” Judge Lippman said. “This is someone who has really paid her dues and at this point she deserves whatever she wants to do. I am delighted to make that happen.”
The chief judge said he will appoint a new chief administrative judge within a matter of days, but declined to identify his choice.
Judge Lippman said he is reassigning Judge Pfau to the position of coordinating judge of the New York State Medical Malpractice Program.
In that position, Judge Pfau will administer a federal grant and oversee a program that promotes early settlement of medical negligence cases through judge-directed negotiation. She will be working with Bronx Supreme Court Justice Douglas McKeon (See Profile), who initiated the pilot program.
Judge Pfau, who has maintained a regular commercial caseload during her years as an administrative judge, will preside over medical malpractice matters in Brooklyn in addition to her coordinating role.
As chief administrative judge, Judge Pfau earns $147,600 a year. Her new salary has not yet been determined, Judge Lippman said.
Under the state Constitution (Article VI, §28), the chief administrative judge supervises the daily operation and administration of a court system that handles 4.7 million cases a year, overseeing a $2.5 billion budget, 3,600 state and local judges and 15,000 judicial employees spread over 300 different locations.
The position is inherently stressful, demanding a deft blend of political and organizational skills.
Except for Judge Lippman, who held the position for nearly 12 years before Judge Pfau’s appointment in mid-2007 by Chief Judge Judith S. Kaye, no one has celebrated a fifth anniversary in the job, and no one other than Judge Pfau had extended service under more than one chief judge.
Judge Pfau’s time as chief administrator coincided with an unusually difficult era for the courts.
Judges were infuriated that the Legislature had denied them pay raises for a dozen years. About 1,500 employees took early retirement last fall, and half the positions were never filled because of an impending fiscal crisis. The court system voluntarily cut $100 million from its budget request in a gesture of cooperation with the political branches—and then watched powerlessly as Governor Andrew M. Cuomo and the Legislature cut another $70 million. Consequently, nearly 500 employees lost their job.
“This has been a very, very difficult year with the fiscal and operational challenges,” Judge Pfau acknowledged. “I couldn’t be luckier than to be surrounded by such wonderful administrative judges who make the system work. I love the job and I adore the people, but you get to the point where you say to yourself, ‘Can I do this for another year with a totally full heart and every bit of my energy?’”
Calm and Focused
Despite the struggles and setbacks that were beyond her control, Judge Pfau presided over the largest expansion of electronic filing in state history, guided the court system’s response to the mortgage foreclosure crisis, overhauled the guardianship and fiduciary appointment system and focused attention on Family Court.
“I will miss her sterling leadership, her management skills and her ability to have the kind of dialogue with our judges and the other branches of government that gets things done,” Judge Lippman said.
Case in point: At the judicial budget hearing earlier this year, Judge Pfau appeared before an angry and combative legislative committee that was clearly spoiling for a fight and portraying the judiciary as spendthrift and indifferent to the state’s fiscal woes.
But Judge Pfau calmly diffused their anger, responding firmly and confidently to the acerbic questions and caustic comments.
“She’s a trouper and she’s a pro, and she does it with grace and dignity,” Judge Lippman said. “That’s why I have always given her the toughest assignments.”
For the judiciary, the greatest achievement of Judge Pfau’s tenure was passage of legislation creating a Special Commission on Judicial Compensation. The commission ensures that judicial salaries are objectively reviewed and adjusted at regular intervals.
Although many judges were disappointed with the result—a 27 percent pay raise over three years—they are relieved to finally see a pay raise, and more relieved that the new process should largely remove judicial compensation from politics.
“We can’t guarantee the outcome will always be what people want, but at least there is a procedure,” Judge Pfau said. “I was committed to staying through that process and promised [Judge Lippman] that I would do that.”
Judge Pfau, 63, is a career court administrator who entered the court system in 1985, shortly after graduating from Brooklyn Law School with two young children.
“Like a lot of women in those circumstances, I went into government,” Judge Pfau said.
She began her career in the courts as an assistant deputy counsel in the Office of Court Administration, an assignment she describes as “just marvelous.”
In 1997, she was appointed to the bench by Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani and later served as deputy chief administrative judge for management support, administrative judge for the Second Judicial District and first deputy administrative judge. Judge Pfau also has served as an acting Supreme Court justice in the Commercial Division of Supreme Court in Brooklyn.
In every court position she has held for the past 22 years, Judge Pfau worked closely with Judge Lippman.
“That personal bond that I have had with her for so many years, the friendship, the admiration, and the great, great affection I have for her, is for me and the courts a lifetime relationship, and I am very grateful to her personally and on behalf of the institution,” Judge Lippman said.
Judge Pfau’s parting advice to her successor: “Recognize that not every problem is solvable. The problems can seem overwhelming, but it all works out. And enjoy the trip between New York City and Albany, because you will make it often.”
@|John Caher can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.