UPDATE: Video of President Fishman’s testimony is now online. The testimony can be found approximately 1 hour and nine minutes into the session.
Good morning Distinguished Judges, Jurists, concerned panelists on the Future of the Courts and the Pandemic Practices Working Group:
I thank you on behalf of the members of the Civil Service Bar Association, the nearly 900 non-managerial Agency Attorneys employed by the City of New York in approximately 40 city agencies, people who themselves have generally risen from working class families and are dedicated to giving back and helping less fortunate New Yorkers. It is an honor to speak with you about their collective needs and experiences. I’m Saul Fishman, their President, with the privilege of serving for the past decade.
I hope to give you a brief idea of where we’ve come from prior to the pandemic and how some ostensibly temporary changes have helped and should be considered going forward. Let’s start with the Attorneys for the Administration for Children’s Services, who comprise about one quarter of our membership. They practice before the NYC Family Courts, trying to improve and even save the lives of children who are often being seriously abused physically, sexually and every other way.
Their caseloads are almost always incredibly high. Despite New York State Bar Association’s Ethics Opinion 751 advising government attorneys against undertaking more cases than they can competently handle, few people have any confidence that they can follow the well-meaning suggestions contained therein without extremely serious ramifications and retaliation. Government attorneys instead vote with their feet, leaving and making a bad situation worse. Since last September alone, we have lost around 100 members, when we had 1,000 agency attorney members. Indeed, multiple city agencies are frustrated that they cannot hire people nearly as fast as they are leaving! The pandemic, the “Great Resignation”, and expectations of being allowed hybrid, flexible scheduling (so far being denied to them) have only exasperated the situation.
What’s my point relative to today’s hearing? Simply that by allowing remote appearances for pre-trial conferences with the court attorneys, their lives are made a bit easier and their time in between being called can be used more productively at their desks preparing other cases, coming before the court in the next few days or at best, couple of weeks. These cases have often been handled previously by another attorney or other attorneys who have left for a saner, less stressful (and probably better paying) job. It is our hope that even relatively small measures to make their workloads easier to accomplish in a competent, better prepared way, may encourage more folks to stay and better help the most vulnerable New Yorkers, abused and neglected children.
Similarly, our members at the Department of Housing Preservation & Development, and at the NYC Housing Authority are often squeezed into small Housing Court conference rooms, which can’t be healthy even in normal times, much less during a pandemic. Unfortunately, most experts believe there will be other pandemics, so pro-active steps to safeguard health & well-being are important to take now or as expeditiously as possible.
Our members understand that the administration of justice is and should be paramount and made available to all. So let’s start with allowing pro-se litigants the option to participate remotely or in person, with the option being provided early on, and the default being a remote hearing. Please remember that working class people generally do not get paid when they miss work. If they can appear remotely, they can appear in court proceedings and still get paid for most of the day.
It should also be noted that far more people from all walks of life, incomes and ages use computers and/or smartphones with cameras than ever before. Grandma probably is on Facebook, and more likely than not, appearing from home rather than taking the bus or the subway and struggling with stairs, would be far preferable.
I know that there are many types of courts, a variety of needs and expectations among the Judges, practitioners and members of the public, and no one can speak for everyone, and no solution is perfect for all. But once again, I thank you for taking the time to hear our perspective, and for trying to better serve New Yorkers in the months and years ahead.