Fifteen years seems like a lifetime ago.
That gorgeous blue sky September morning. So many of us gathering in Albany for the first statewide Access to Justice Conference. The top leaders of the New York State Judiciary — then Chief Judge Judith Kaye, Chief Administrative Judge Jonathan Lippman, head of the courts’ Access to Justice Initiative Judge Juanita Bing Newton. Leaders of the legal services community from Buffalo to Montauk. Leaders of the New York State Bar Association.
All gathering to celebrate justice.
We were looking forward to a day and a half of workshops, seminars and strategy sessions about emerging legal issues confronting our clients and the on-going unmet civil legal needs of New York’s most vulnerable populations. What could we do more, do better, do differently to help expand access to civil legal aid for those who needed it most?
What was the funding situation looking like? Why did New York lag so far behind so many other states in supporting legal services? What did it mean to have legal assistance when you confronted an eviction, or the loss of health care, or the denial of critical benefits? Why did it matter?
Then the planes hit.
Like people across the nation, our New York City colleagues tried frantically to reach their spouses and children, partners and parents. All systems jammed. We hunkered down in stunned disbelief in front of the TVs, the computers, anything that would give us information.
Chief Judge Kaye, Judge Lippman and their top staff literally turned the Desmond Hotel in Albany into command central for the Office of Court Administration. The OCA offices on Beaver Street were a few short blocks from the World Trade Center. Could they locate their staff, was everyone OK, how would they keep the courts running? Helaine Barnett, then head of the Legal Aid Society’s civil division, her deputy Steve Banks and Andy Scherer, the head of Legal Services of New York City, tried not to panic as they tried again and again to reach their offices in lower Manhattan.
Legal services directors arrived that morning from Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse stumbling off the Thruway on that beautiful terrible morning asking, “What can we do to help?”
The day shifted; our world shifted.
There was no getting back into New York City. We debated whether or not the dinner should go as planned that night. Chief Judge Kaye said yes. Her talk to us that night went from rallying the troops around a call for expanded access to justice, to a powerful, somber reminder that we live thankfully under the rule of law.
Chief Judge Kaye reminded us that access to justice and respect for the law really do matter. Deeply and profoundly. She urged us that night to recommit ourselves to working for justice, not to give up, but to go on.