Lead with humility and humanity: Set the tone in your courtroom. The families that come before you do not want to be there. They are angry, scared, and perhaps in crisis. Listen to what they say with open ears, an open mind, and an open heart. What we do is hard. What these families are going through is harder. It is very easy to shut down and turn off when you hear angry words, or hurt, or are shown signs of apparent disrespect. But this is precisely the time when you must show grace and do what is best for the family. This was never more apparent to me than it was many years ago when, I, myself, sought to become a kin caregiver to my three nieces. Already a judge, I found myself navigating courthouses as a litigant, doing what so many other family members do every day: show up for my family. These three young girls, then 16, 15, and 10 had lost both of their parents to quick, unexpected medical tragedies. We soon realized that the initial plan of them staying with their paternal grandmother— with support from other family members— was unsustainable. Before I made any legal moves, I first spoke with the girls—my nieces, to make sure they in fact, wanted to live with me and my own daughter, whose life would be immeasurably impacted by this change. I, too, experienced what Secretary Jeh Johnson and his team, who produced the 100-page Special Adviser on Equal Justice report, concluded, which was that many who serve in our courts work hard to “get it right and make it better.” Yet even with these good intentions, many in New York are still subject to a “second-class system of justice,” where court users are crowded through a dehumanizing and overburdened system that is still marked by racial intolerance. 37 Even with my education and training as a lawyer and a family court
judge, and the assistance of a lawyer, the process was extremely difficult to navigate. Yet there are so many who do this every day without assistance. Ultimately, we came to an agreement about the care of the girls and were able to avoid a trial. It proved to me that we must do everything we can to support families and kin caregivers at every possible junction. I am happy to say that the girls came into my full-time care, and we have all formed incredible bonds. All my girls are now fully grown adults who are thriving and living wonderful lives, expanding our family into another generation with my now three growing grandchildren. And now, I lead the Equal Justice in the Courts Initiative, implementing all of Secretary Johnson’s recommendations to make the courts better for all its users. We have come a long way in preserving families whenever possible and keeping children with kin. But there is more work to be done. ______________ 37 In June 2020, Chief Judge DiFiore commissioned former U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson as Special Adviser on Equal Justice in the Courts to conduct an in-depth review of the New York State court system’s policies, practices, rules, and programs as they relate to issues of racial and other bias. The full report, with its recommendations, can be found here https://nycourts.gov/whatsnew/pdf/ SpecialAdviserEqualJusticeReport.pdf _________________________ Judge Edwina Mendelson is the Deputy Chief Administrative Judge for the newly expanded New York State Unified Court System’s Office for Justice Initiatives, tasked with ensuring meaningful access to justice for all New Yorkers in civil, criminal, and family courts, regardless of income, background, or disability.
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36 | FIJ Quarterly | Fall 2022
FIJ Quarterly | Fall 2022 | 37
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