There is no institution such as ours that arrives on the scene fully formed and ready to dispense law. So, it is appropriate that we recognize the prior generations of judges and staff, and the many outstanding lawyers who have helped shape the court to what it is today which is truly a temple of the law.
Our court was established by legislation as an intermediate appellate court in 1896 and, on Jan. 2, 1900, our first judges took up residence of the beautiful courthouse overlooking Madison Square Park. The Appellate Division was created to streamline appeals and to facilitate the development of precedential legal principles which would then guide the many lower courts of the day. Every kind of issue that could lead to disputes in this city at that time passed through our court, and because of how jurisdiction was devised, most cases ended in the Appellate Division. Thus, from its inception, the Appellate Division was the epicenter of New York legal jurisprudence and the guardian of this great city it was intended to serve—a city of unparalleled wealth but also unimaginable and too often unrelenting poverty.
The cases that came through the Appellate Division in the past century were a reflection of the history of this great city. As the 20th century in New York City traveled in time through the Progressive Era, this city experienced: the carefree roaring 20s and prohibition; the birth and increasing entrenchment of organized crime; the Great Depression; the War years; the prosperity and economic expansion of the 1950s; the clamor and protests of the 60s; the crime waves and drug epidemics of the 70s and 80s; the economic uncertainties of the 90s; and the shockwave of 9/11 and its aftereffects—all of these trends and events inevitably spawned conflicts that had to be litigated and resolved by our court. Thus, our court played an important role in redefining the law to meet the needs of the time and with our rulings helped to reshape our politics and our society.
Today, we decide many of the same kinds of cases, although the circumstances have changed. People still get hurt, even if it’s car accidents rather than trolleys. Workers still have accidents, although modern work safety laws have reduced, although not eliminated, mortality and severe injuries at construction sites. There is always crime, although today we have to address electronic crime, sophisticated financial crimes, Fourth Amendment issues involving social media, and many concerns that were unimaginable only a few decades ago. In sum, almost every kind of litigation that can be imagined for New York law will cross the desks of our staff and will land on our bench.
The ratio of cases may also reflect the era. For instance, our caseload in the 1980s and 1990s was heavily weighted towards criminal appeals. They reflected the crack epidemic and other drug scourges that devastated many lives in this city. In contrast, today we have much fewer street crime cases, and our civil caseload is proportionately higher—831 criminal appeals versus 2,138 civil appeals in 2015—which also accords with historic trends: New York City today is very safe and very much open for business.
However, in the area of commercial litigation, the First Department has long enjoyed a reputation for preeminence. New York City sits at the apex of commerce and finance, both nationally and internationally, and complex commercial appeals have also become an especially important part of our caseload. Our court reviews approximately 500 to 600 complex commercial appeals each year, including cases involving financial derivatives, collateral debt obligations, credit default swaps, and residential or commercial mortgage backed securities. The complexity of these cases, and the additional time and effort needed to determine them at times requires a lengthier and detailed decision making process.
I’ve had the privilege of serving as the acting presiding justice for over a year now. It’s a privilege that I had twice before. Since taking the helm in January of last year, I have implemented certain procedural changes to improve our services to the bar, and to the public at large.
I firmly believe that justice delayed is, too often, justice denied. The outcome of the appeal affects many individuals in their businesses, in their health and mobility for injured plaintiffs, in their homes for many tenants and, even for landlords in their ability to rent out apartments or commercial premises. In criminal cases, the appeal affects people’s liberty. So I am acutely conscious of the need to expeditiously move an appeal along to a definite resolution, whatever the outcome for the particular case.
To alleviate the problem of an accumulated a backlog of appeals, which caused delay in placing perfected appeals on the calendar for argument, I added approximately 138 additional cases to the calendar over the course of the second half of 2016. This reduced our inventory of appeals and shortened the time needed to place an appeal on the calendar.
To ameliorate the tendency for work to accumulate over the summer due to our judges being on vacation and out of touch with one another, this past summer we tried a new procedure which allowed judges, wherever they were, to review proposed decisions via email and to swiftly respond with his or her vote on the matter. This new procedure reduced the number of outstanding post-argument cases over the summer to 38, a number we have not seen in many years.
Our efforts during 2016 have resulted in an in-crease of 146 additional dispositions of appeals over 2015, well in line with Chief Judge Janet DiFiore’s Excellence Initiative. We will continue to put in place procedures to increase our efficiency while remaining attentive to the quality of our review and our decisions, so that the lawyers who practice before us and their clients can more reliably plan post-appeal.
Now, I’d like to make a final observation about the Appellate Division, First Department. In so many respects, we reflect this great city that is our home. After a century in existence, our staff and our bench have more recently begun to reflect the cultural diversity of the city, including judges and staff who have African-American and Hispanic backgrounds and, as is obvious, also Asians. I think that it is especially remarkable at this point in our city’s history that my good friend, Justice Randy Eng, is the presiding justice of our sister court in Brooklyn, while I am acting presiding justice of the First Department. This is the first time in the history of New York State that two Asians preside over two of the four judicial departments.
New York City truly is a melting pot, a metropolis with a complicated and fascinating history whose best days may well be ahead of us. And I think that we can all anticipate that our historically esteemed courthouse, and its skilled, diligent and diverse bench and staff, will be proficiently and professionally generating top quality work for generations to come.