When Chief Judge Janet DiFiore took office two years ago, she presented all of us in the Judicial Branch with a challenge and a mandate: Do better today than you did yesterday, and do better tomorrow than you did today—excellence in all areas.
That mandate, which Judge DiFiore calls her “Excellence Initiative,” would be little but an empty slogan if it didn’t come with accountability, so she also required all of us to document what and how we are doing, and spell out for her and the public what we are going to improve and how.
Frankly, the Excellence Initiative made all of us in the Judiciary reflect on where we were and where we want to be. How do we measure up under an excellence standard when regular reports are available to the public? Would people understand that sometimes delays are not the fault or under the control of the judge?
Judges and non-judicial staff felt the same anxiety anyone would have at evaluation time. Still, we all know that what gets measured gets addressed, and we welcomed the challenge, eager to prove not only how good we are, but how diligent and responsible we are with the public’s trust and the public’s money.
I am delighted to report that in the Fifth Judicial District—which encompasses the counties of Herkimer, Jefferson, Lewis, Oneida, Onondaga and Oswego—the latest Excellence Initiative numbers are outstanding. As the District Administrative Judge, I take great pride, but we all share in the credit, for the great work done by the judges and non-judicial personnel.
In 2017, significant strides were made to more effectively and efficiently resolve cases to comply with what the Unified Court System calls “standards and goals,” aspirational time periods for how long it “should” take for certain types of cases to proceed to various points (with the understanding that some delays are beyond the ability of the court to avoid). Consider the Fifth District facts:
- In the Family Courts, between 97 percent and 98 percent of the litigants had their matters resolved within the standards and goals period of six months.
- In the Supreme Courts, where cases ranged from tax issues to matrimonial matters to medical malpractice cases, the number of cases pending was reduced by almost 20 percent in 2017, and those over standards and goals were reduced by 35 percent. Indeed, there were 300 fewer cases over standards and goals at the end of 2017.
- In the County Courts, where felony cases are brought, there were 24 more criminal trials held in 2017 than in 2016 (bringing the total to more than 100). Additionally, the total pending felony caseload was reduced by 10 percent from 2016 to 2017, and 92 percent of all those cases were disposed of within standards and goals.
- In the City Courts, which generally handle misdemeanors, the number of cases exceeding the 90-day standard-and-goal was reduced by 36 percent—more than 500 cases—from 2016 to 2017. Bear in mind that the 36 percent improvement in 2016 followed a double-digit improvement from 2015 to 2016, when the Excellence Initiative began.
It’d be nice to rest on our laurels and give ourselves a pat on the back, and while we do hope for the latter, we know the former is out of the question. We all know that Chief Judge DiFiore expects us to continue to improve in 2018—and we know she, and the public we serve, deserve it.
Justice. James C. Tormey III is a New York State Supreme Court Justice and the Administrative Judge for the Fifth Judicial District.