In 2009, Jonathan Lippman was named Chief Judge of New York State courts by Gov. David Paterson. Prior to being named chief judge, he served as the chief administrative judge to Judith S. Kaye and as the Presiding Justice of the Appellate Division of the Supreme Court for the First Judicial Department. Judge Lippman has long been an advocate of problem-solving judicial reform (see, for example this op-ed). He spoke with the Center for Court Innovation’s Carolyn Turgeon prior to being named chief judge.
With dozens of drug treatment courts and dozens of other problem-solving courts, New York is a national leader in the area of problem-solving justice. Can you talk a little about how you got there?
It was really an initiative of Chief Judge Kaye. We talked together about how we could make the court system more efficient, more user-friendly and more relevant to today’s society and its problems. In New York we already had the Midtown Community Court on the drawing board, which took a different approach to the role of the judiciary in the community. It evolved from there. We wanted to explore how a court of law could address the societal problems we saw in our courtrooms. So we started looking at the types of court proceedings that might use a new approach, one that focused on why the people were in our courthouses and their underlying problems. This led us to develop more fully, along with the Center for Court Innovation, this whole idea of the courts as a problem-solving entity.
The state has been under a lot of budgetary pressures in recent years. Have problem-solving courts helped you get support from the Legislature for the Judiciary's budget?
Problem-solving courts are working and they serve the public well. And while problem-solving courts cost money like all other courts, what we’ve experienced in our budget hearings—and from our discussions with the Legislature—is that the Legislature thinks that problem-solving courts are approaches that the public can be proud of, that the Legislature’s proud of. So I think in a general way it has helped. When I go to the hearings most of what I hear is still, “Can’t we have more problem-solving courts? Can’t we have one in our district? What about this new area? Could we do a problem-solving court in a different discipline than we’ve done it before?” So on a number of levels, it has been helpful in terms of the reception of our budget.
What does the future hold for problem-solving courts in New York?
We’re working towards the institutionalization of problem-solving concepts into the fiber of what we do. The idea is to figure out the best way to conduct our business and the best way to serve the public. We will then seek to institutionalize not so much the court itself as a laboratory court but rather the changes in the way we handle that particular category of cases. We have dozens of drug courts right now and more in development. But we’re not going to be content just because we have reached “X” number of drug courts. We will be satisfied when the drug court concept—the concept of treating nonviolent addicted offenders and reintroducing them into society as valued members of the community—is the way we do our business in relation to nonviolent addicted offenders.
So you feel the principles of problem-solving courts can be applied in general court calendars?
Yes, in large measure. The key is learning what can and cannot be applied across the board. Certainly, many of the principles and concepts can be.
What can and can’t be? Do you have any ideas about what principles are most adaptable to general courts?
It depends on the kinds of cases, but general courts can apply the principles of early screening and intensive judicial monitoring. General courts can also work with providers and social service entities. By giving the community a greater voice in what happens, general courts can bring the court closer to the community. General courts can also use the reward-and-punishment approach of the drug court idea and foster accountability. There are so many principles of problem-solving courts that can be adapted not only to the general court population but to other institutional entities, whether it be school systems, other branches of government, or service providers. There are important lessons we’ve learned from problem-solving courts that we think can be applied very broadly.
What are the challenges of institutionalization?
Any time you go to scale, there are cost issues, education issues, and cultural issues. You’re changing the way the courts do their business. You’re changing a culture, and courts are tradition-laden institutions. It takes time to change the way we’ve been doing it for hundreds of years. But certainly there’s been a broad acceptance of the principles of problem-solving courts, and we’re making good progress.
Are you finding it’s challenging to adapt the models to various parts of the state?
Sure. There are different cultures, different ways of doing things. That’s the challenge. And aside from the judges and court staff, there are various groups involved —prosecutors, defense attorneys, advocacy groups, community groups—that have to be brought together to understand what we’re doing and why we’re doing it. We very much want to have the support of the communities we serve.
I know in July 2004 the Conference of Chief Justices and Conference of State Court Administrators resolved to encourage states to expand the use of problem-solving principles and methods into their courts. How do you see this playing out in New York?
CCJ and COSCA are firmly on record as being in favor of the institutionalization of problem-solving courts. In New York we’ve been at the front of the parade and have been very proactive within COSCA and CCJ in promoting problem-solving justice. It’s good for New Yorkers to see that the rest of the country’s on the same track.
What value does the Center for Court Innovation bring to the New York court system?
It's essential because particularly in high volume courts we spend a good part of our time just trying to keep our heads above water. We need to think out loud, we need to try new things and we need to look around us at the rest of the country and at the societal problems we face. Having a research and development group, a think tank devoted to court issues, is critical for a system like New York's. We have over 4 million cases submitted in a year and more cases in a single day than many other court systems, federal or state, have in a year. So it's important to have an entity that is working just on research and development and is daring to think out of the box. It's been vital to our success in developing new ways of doing the judiciary's business. Looking at the research, looking at the results, thinking anew—these are all things that we need to do, and the Center has helped us in the progress that we've made.