Chief Judge DiFiore hosts virtual Law Day with AG James and NYSBA Prez
While public gatherings have been put on hold due to the coronavirus pandemic, Chief Judge Janet DiFiore and Attorney General Letitia James maintained a 30-year tradition in New York when they hosted a virtual Law Day ceremony with New York State Bar Association President Hank Greenberg on Friday.
“This year we are pleased to continue our tradition, albeit in a very different way,” Chief Judge DiFiore said in a ceremony that was broadcast from the NYCourts.gov website.
“After speaking with our Attorney General, Letitia James, and our State Bar President Hank Greenberg, we agreed without hesitation that Law Day had to be celebrated,” DiFiore continued. “Our message to the public, particularly this year, must be clear and unwavering — Our justice system remains strong and resilient, our respective institutions are working together to ensure access to justice and we are supporting and upholding the rule of law, standing together against the disruption of the moment.”
Law Day is an annual celebration of the rule of law in the United States that goes back to President Dwight Eisenhower, who created it at the suggestion of his legal counsel at the time, Charles Rhyne.
In keeping New York’s tradition as close as possible to what happens in a typical year, Chief Judge DiFiore invited Regan Williams, a court clerk from the Manhattan Criminal Court, to kick off the event with the Pledge of Allegiance. Sgt. Jessica Hernandez, a court officer from the Bronx Supreme Court, sang the National Anthem.
“Regan Williams has continued reporting to work every day, along with so many of her dedicated colleagues across the state, to provide essential support to our virtual court parts,” said Chief Judge DiFiore. “It is because of folks like Regan that we are able to deliver justice safely and effectively in the midst of this pandemic.
“Sgt. Hernandez and her uniformed colleagues from around the state have put themselves at great risk during this public health crisis, serving on our front lines so that we can keep our courts open to serve the public and carry out our constitutional mission,” DiFiore continued.
This year’s theme, chosen by the American Bar Association, was “Your Vote, Your Voice, Our Democracy: The 19th Amendment at 100.”
Chief Judge DiFiore recalled the pioneering suffragettes Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony in her speech and proudly proclaimed that their movement for equality began right here in New York with the Seneca Falls Convention.
“While the pioneers of the women’s suffrage movement would certainly be pleased with the progress with women in American society — there are a record number of them, 131, serving in the Congress, and here in New York State women in the judiciary make up 42 percent of our bench — they would undoubtedly be surprised and even disappointed at the woeful lack of civic knowledge and understanding of our electorate and the low voter turnout we experience year after year across our nation.”
Attorney General James then reminded the audience that while the 19th Amendment marked a huge amount of progress, that women of color would not get the unimpeded right to vote until the 1960s, and that even today they and others struggle to exercise their right to vote because of systemic issues.
“Too many Americans, women and men, are still fighting for the unfettered right to vote,” James said. “It’s an American tragedy that 100 years after the passage of the 19th Amendment, 56 years after the passage of the Civil Rights Act, and 55 years after Lyndon Baines Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act into law, we face renewed attempts to deny the basic right to vote, especially in communities of color.
“In fact, voter ID laws and voter suppression have become the new poll taxes,” James continued. “Redlining has been replaced by deed theft. And all over this country, millions of American women are paid less for the same work and are forced to fight to control the rights of their own bodies.”
NYSBA President Greenberg discussed how the COVID-19 pandemic is going to force a tremendous test on the U.S. democracy, which he pointed out was not designed to conduct an election in the midst of a public health crisis.
“We can take comfort in the knowledge that America has previously overcome epic crises,” Greenberg said. “We’ve been here before. During the Civil War, when America was in the throes of the bloodiest conflict in our history, President Abraham Lincoln was determined to proceed with the election of 1864.
“It was an election that would decide his fate in the White House and he feared defeat,” Greenberg continued. “Nevertheless, Lincoln believed the election was a necessity. He explained to the American people, we cannot have a free government without elections and if the rebellion could force us to forgo or postpone a national election it might fairly claim to have already conquered and ruined us.”
Chief Judge DiFiore regretted that this year, as it usually does during Law Day, the court system could not hold a ceremony honoring court employees from across the state for their notable contributions.
“I want to take this opportunity to express our special appreciation for the extraordinary work of our non-judicial staff, including the chief clerks, court clerks, court officers, technology staff and many other dedicated court professionals who worked countless hours, under very difficult conditions, to create a virtual court system almost overnight — a system that has enabled us to deliver justice services all across the state, without putting the public, or our judges and staff, at risk of harm,” Chief Judge DiFiore concluded.
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