Jonathan Lippman: A Crusader for the Poor and Drug-Addicted

New York's top judge is the brain behind many ideas that have upended the court system nationwide including legal aid for the poor, drug courts and foreclosure protections.
Feature (NATIONAL, New York)

Liz Farmer
Governing, e.Republic
September 1, 2014
Link to article

Tags: Benefits of Legal Aid, Consumer Protection, Courts, Delivery Systems, Housing: Foreclosure, Housing: Landlord-Tenant, Pro Bono, Unbundling

Organizations mentioned/involved: California Commission on Access to Justice (CCATJ)


It’s not just a New York problem. The nation’s courts are loaded with civil litigants who can’t afford lawyers. New York differs from most other states only in the sheer number of its unrepresented — and in the steps it has taken to deal with the situation.

During his five years as chief judge, Lippman has argued that legal services for the poor are actually a money saver for the state because they cut down on the delays that uninformed participants force into the system. A task force he established has asserted that for every $1 invested in legal services for the poor, $5 is returned to the state. But Lippman has taken more forceful action than that. Most recently, he has induced the New York court system to require that starting next year, law students must log 50 hours of supervised pro bono work before being admitted to the state bar. The move has caught the attention of other states.

In his view, “being a little bit of a provocateur is a good thing for the judiciary.” His approach to an institution bound by precedent is that the judiciary should go beyond simply deciding cases fairly. It should be an incubator for ideas that make the system function better for everyone using it. And it should work to make courts open and navigable for citizens of every income level.

The experience with problem-solving courts laid the foundation for what has become Lippman’s hallmark as chief judge: a determination to use creativity and experimentation as welcome tools in the judicial system. “That changed everything for me,” Lippman says. “I got the passion — this whole idea of doing justice and pursuing justice on such a broad scale. It fascinated me.”

In civil matters, Lippman has pushed through or advocated a number of changes aimed at benefiting consumers. New foreclosure rules, passed after the housing collapse of 2008, require banks in their initial filing to include a certificate declaring a reasonable basis for the foreclosure.