Despite the critical importance of a strong and independent judiciary, it’s too often that court reform is ignored by public officials and civic leaders. Earlier this week – at the Conference on Judicial Selection Reform hosted by the Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone – I had the opportunity to use my perspective as Chair of The Fund for Modern Courts to speak on the importance of simplifying New York’s antiquated court system.

The conference began with remarks by Congressman Jerry Nadler, Chair of the House Judiciary Committee, and former Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson – who recently issued a report on racism and bias in the state court system. Secretary Johnson referred to the current court structure as “inexplicable,” and described how certain courts, such as the family and criminal courts, are under-resourced and over-burdened. He furthered explained how, in New York, over time there has developed a “second class system of justice for people of color.”

Following the keynote speakers, two panel discussions addressed the history of the judicial selection in New York, while also offering reform proposals. Former President of the New York State Bar Association Steve Younger provided background on New York’s court system by explaining how the 11 separate and distinct trial courts comprise a patchwork of varying limitations on jurisdiction. He examined the different terms of office for judges and a host of contrasting judicial selection methods, including how some judges in New York are elected, others are appointed, and still others are appointed from a defined pool of candidates selected by commissions.

One of the panelists, Assemblymember Robert Carroll, discussed a constitutional amendment he recently proposed that would empower panels to select judges which, in his view, would lead to a more thoughtful, skills-based approach to judicial selection. There was a consensus among panelists that too often judicial elections fail to provide a meaningful choice for voters.  It is common for judges to run unopposed after being selected by political party leaders, and, even where there is choice, it is difficult for voters to assess the quality of judicial candidates in these “low information” races.

During my panel, I had the privilege of sharing the virtual stage with John Feerick, former Dean of Fordham Law School, and Alicia Bannon, Managing Director of the Brennan Center’s Democracy Program.  Dean Feerick detailed important reform efforts he has spearheaded, while Ms. Bannon addressed the importance of greater diversity on the bench. I presented the Chief Judge’s proposed constitutional amendment that would consolidate the court system from 11 trial courts to three. Among the various compelling arguments in favor of reform, I emphasized the importance of having a system where resources are allowed to be allocated where they are most needed. In addition, my hope is that through reform wasteful, parallel proceedings can be minimized.

The three of us addressed the importance of informing and engaging the public on these compelling, common sense reform issues in order to overcome resistance from those who may have personal interests in maintaining the status quo.  My biggest takeaway is that it’s important to remember that court reform is not an academic issue, but instead is one which affects the rights, liberties, health and safety of real people.

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Photo of William C. Silverman William C. Silverman

William C. Silverman is a partner responsible for leading Proskauer’s global pro bono efforts, which provide assistance to individual clients and nonprofit organizations in litigation as well as transactional matters. He focuses on identifying and securing pro bono opportunities and partnerships for Proskauer…

William C. Silverman is a partner responsible for leading Proskauer’s global pro bono efforts, which provide assistance to individual clients and nonprofit organizations in litigation as well as transactional matters. He focuses on identifying and securing pro bono opportunities and partnerships for Proskauer lawyers and ensuring widespread participation in these projects.

Bill has robust private and public sector experience and a strong criminal and civil background. He has worked extensively on government investigations and white collar criminal matters, as well as complex civil litigation in federal and state courts. He also served as an assistant U.S. attorney in the Southern District of New York, where he led criminal investigations, conducted trials and handled Second Circuit appeals.

Throughout his career, Bill has dedicated himself to the promotion of equal access to justice through pro bono service, particularly in the area of family court, anti-trafficking, and immigration.

Bill spearheaded a partnership among several law firms, corporations and the New York City Family Court to provide free legal advice to pro se litigants. The New York City Family Court Volunteer Attorney Program now has more than 400 volunteer attorneys from 40 major firms and corporations. Bill also helped build a coalition of organizations in a successful effort to secure additional Family Court judges in New York. He is now part of an effort spearheaded by Chief Judge Janet DiFiore to simplify the New York Court System from 11 trial courts to three.

Bill serves as counsel to the New York State Anti-Trafficking Coalition. In that capacity he has been a strong advocate for changes in the law and public policy to protect victims of human trafficking and bring perpetrators to justice. He also represents individual clients in this area, including a successful federal lawsuit brought on behalf of a trafficking victim against her traffickers. For his work, he was named by domestic violence nonprofit Sanctuary For Families as one of “New York’s New Abolitionists.”

Bill has spoken at numerous conferences and events, including New York Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman’s Hearings on Civil Legal Services and the American Bar Association’s Equal Justice Conference. In 2014, he attended a meeting at the White House with Vice President Joe Biden and other policymakers on the need for access to legal services in immigration proceedings.

Bill has been recognized for his public service with the Abely Pro Bono Leadership Award from Sanctuary For Families and Columbia Law School (2019); the Special Leadership Award for All-Around Excellence in Corporate Social Responsibility & the Law from City & State Reports (2015); the Commitment to Justice Award for Outstanding Partner from inMotion (2008); and the Matthew G. Leonard Award for Outstanding Pro Bono Achievement from MFY Legal Services (2007).

Outside of his work at the firm, Bill serves on various committees and non-profit boards. Bill is currently chairman of the Fund for Modern Courts, a non-partisan citizen organization devoted to improving New York State courts, and is formerly chairman of Legal Information For Families Today (LIFT), an organization devoted to unrepresented litigants in Family Court.