“As we learn from our bible, specifically in the book of Deuteronomy, we are commanded to seek justice for all. As the passage says, ‘Justice, justice, thou shalt pursue’, declared Jonathan Lippman, Chief Judge of the State of New York. This palpable passion for maintaining the loftiest levels of jurisprudence marked the resounding theme of the recent interview that Judge Lippman granted to The Jewish Voice.
As one walks into the midtown Manhattan offices of the affable 67-year old chief judge of the New York Court of Appeals, there is little doubt that this stellar paradigm of adjudication maintains a forward-looking perspective on a panoply of bold reforms in the judicial system of the Empire State.
As a Manhattan native, Judge Lippman is a product of the New York City public school system and received his law degree in 1968 from the prestigious New York University School of Law. His highly impressive curriculum vitae clearly indicates that Judge Lippman has distinguished himself as an exemplary administrator throughout this career in the justice system in New York and has been credited with presenting cogent arguments to the state legislature; inspiring them to double the financing of the court system while simultaneously passing other reform measures aimed at creating special purpose courts and updating the jury system.
As a bold advocate of enhancing transparency in the court system, Judge Lippman minces no words.”Because of the marvels of modern technology, I am a firm believer in cameras in the courtroom,” he says with a strong trace of zeal in his voice. “The public has the right to have direct access to court proceedings and for that reason I believe that video internet streaming of court cases will significantly assist lawyers, judges, defendants and anyone seeking an accurate portrayal of the mechanics of the judicial system.” insisted Judge Lippman.
While the law allowing for cameras in the courtroom was placed on a back burner some years ago, Judge Lippman says it should be immediately revivified. At a recent press conference following his annual State of the Judiciary address in Albany, Lippman emphatically stated, “As far as I’m concerned, every trial in the State of New York should be constantly streaming.”
On a similar note, Judge Lippman does not hesitate to laud the ground breaking achievements of celebrated defense attorneys Barry Scheck and Peter Neufeld, co-founders of the Innocence Project at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law. In 1988, both Scheck and Neufeld became involved in studying and litigating issues concerning the use of forensic DNA testing. Their work not only shaped the course of case law across the country but helped lead to an influential study by the National Academy of Sciences on forensic DNA testing, as well as important state and federal legislation setting standards for the use of DNA testing.
“The DNA bill is so very vital to equitable results in our legal system,’ declares Judge Lippman. “Defendants can now have complete access to the court database, and that is a most monumental accomplishment,” he continues.
As a constant proponent of judicial righteousness and truth, Judge Lippman’s concerns include the very real possibility of false confessions being elicited from suspects, misidentification of alleged perpetrators of crimes and the increasing rate of wrongful convictions. To that end, Judge Lippman says, “We need to make a regular practice of videotaping police interrogations to eliminate any potential misinterpretation of the facts as they unfolded.”
Addressing the escalating number of underage defendants who are being processed in the state’s legal systems, Judge Lippman proffers his opinions on on the vicissitudes of the state of affairs of true justice for juveniles. “It has become clear that adolescents; let’s says 16 year olds and 17 year olds, are now being treated as adults in terms of court proceedings and sentencing. Clinical studies have resulted in the fact that teenagers and children do not have sufficient capacity to weigh risk and consequences, and these facts should play a critical role in the resultant sentencing or lack thereof, of our state’s youth.”
A significant percentage of Judge Lippman’s personal concepts on judicial vigilance emanate from his background and training as a mouthpiece for those who, because of their circumstances, do not have access to highly qualified legal defenders. “I’m not here to pontificate,” states Judge Lippman. “As jurists, we must take every day and make it our own. We are here to produce concrete results and we must be cognizant of the fact that tens of millions of people do have not access to or simply cannot afford both civil and legal services and this must be rectified in order to narrow the gap in justice. There must be a stable and consistent revenue stream from the state for legal services. Young lawyers should be trained in a culture of dedication and service to those who are unable to receive it elsewhere,” he declares.
Of the court system in general, Judge Lippman says, “We should remain gatekeepers, ensuring that our courts are insulated from political influence. While our courts are independent, we should remember that they are also interdependent.” While many judges seek to foist their opinions and rulings over the courts they preside over, Judge Lippman takes a more liberal approach. “The law is much better articulated through diversity. I am a believer in the right to strong legal dissent, meaning justice can be served quite well without an insistence on unanimous rulings by jurors and judges.”
As emphatically extolled in his 2013 State of the Judiciary address in Albany, Judge Lippman is a champion of a top-to-bottom revamping of the state’s bail statutes, thus ensuring what he believes is a rational approach to pre-trial justice.
While stating that public safety must be a priority in determining whether a defendant who committed a violent crime should be released prior to trial, Judge Lippman takes a decidedly more pragmatic view when it pertains to non-violent defendants. “We must do all we can to eliminate the risk that New Yorkers are incarcerated simply because they lack the financial means to make bail,” he says. “More than simply being unfair, incarcerating indigent defendants for no other reason than they cannot meet even a minimum bail amount strips our justice system of its credibility and distorts its operation,” he adds.
Because of the devastating effects of the nationwide economic downturn, the coffers of New York State have also been negatively impacted. Bearing this in mind, Judge Lippman presents a solution that would remove another burden from the already over-taxed New York state resident. “It costs a lot of money to jail thousands of New Yorkers each year before even determining whether they are in fact guilty as charged. Nationally, the average cost of pre-trail detention is $19,000 per defendant. The average cost to put a defendant in a supervised release program that keeps him or her in the community but monitors his or her whereabouts and provides access to social services, is between $3100 and $4600.”
Taking on the limitations of the bail bond industry that is motivated strictly by profit, Judge Lippman says, “Bail bondsmen, who typically receive a fee equal to 10 percent of the bond amount, almost never write bail bonds for $1000 or less, because there is only a small profit to be made in such bonds. They are far more likely to underwrite high bail amounts, which means, ironically, that defendants charged with serious offenses are more likely to obtain bail bonds than those accused of minor crimes.”