The Past Year Offered Unique Opportunities for Transformation; Let Us Boldly Seize Them and Not Shy Away From Change
The past year has taxed us – our nation, our state, our profession and our society – in ways no one could have predicted or desired. The twin crises of the coronavirus pandemic and social justice as it relates to law enforcement combined to expose longstanding inequities, and it is far past time to address them.
As eager as we may be to put this trying time behind us, it is imperative that we do not close our eyes to the revelations and lessons it brought, no matter how difficult they may be. We find ourselves on the cusp of a great opportunity to take what we have learned and change things for the better.
These changes will not come easily. In many cases, entire systems – policing, health care, education and even our courts – require significant reimagining and retooling to meet the needs of the so-called new normal. But we must rise to the challenge. As lawyers, we are uniquely positioned to assist in this endeavor, and we must start by getting our own house in order.
The restrictions imposed as a result of the COVID-19 crisis exacerbated the already considerable difficulties faced by some of the most vulnerable members of our society, including access to justice, which is the very foundation of our democracy. Shuttered courts and virtual proceedings presented additional barriers to those who do not have easy access to the internet, cannot afford legal representation or for whom English is not their first language.
But there are also advantages to expanding virtual proceedings in the legal profession, particularly when it comes to reducing administrative burdens for court employees and attorneys alike. Now that there is light at the end of the pandemic tunnel, and the availability of vaccines has facilitated the reopening of our courts and offices, it is time for us to take stock of the changes that occurred over the past year and determine what worked and what did not.
One of my top priorities during my year as president will be to establish a task force on the post-pandemic future of the legal profession, whose members will be charged with determining how collectively we should move forward to maximize the opportunities and overcome the hurdles presented by our new way of life.
In addition, I will convene a task force on racism, social equity and the law, with an eye toward building on the work the association has undertaken to address some of the most intransigent regulations, laws and structures that are collectively holding us back as a society from achieving true equality. We will strive to see every issue we tackle this year through the lens of equity, as we know all too well that racism and injustice pervades almost every aspect of our lives.
And that effort will extend beyond race to also include individuals who suffer stigma and abuse as a result of their sexual or gender orientation. Across the nation, we are seeing an alarming rise in efforts to curb the rights of individuals simply because of the way they choose to express themselves. Advocates say that 2021 was a record-breaking year for anti-transgender legislation, with 33 states introducing a variety of bills targeting the freedom of this vulnerable population. This cannot stand. With its reputation as a progressive leader, New York can and should speak out against these prejudicial efforts and set the standard for true equitable treatment of all individuals under the law.
State-level initiatives like those that target transgender Americans are born at the ballot box. The free and unfettered ability to vote is a fundamental right, and it, too, is under attack. The past year has brought an alarming rise in efforts to undermine this inalienable right – starting with a pre-presidential push by the former administration to discredit the outcome of the 2020 election, followed by the unprecedented Jan. 6 attack on our nation’s Capitol by those bent on overturning the very bedrock of our democracy and our nation.
Now we see states across the nation engaged in a wholesale push to restrict voting access. Again, this cannot stand. New York, thankfully, has worked in recent years to improve and broaden access to the ballot box. We should be a beacon of hope and a shining example of how to encourage participation in democracy, not limit it. The association has a role to play here as well, putting the considerable expertise and experience of our members at the disposal of lawmakers who seek to protect and preserve this important tenet of our society.
I am aware the agenda I have outlined above is both far-reaching and ambitious. And there will undoubtedly be additional issues that arise over the coming year that we will be compelled to address. But I firmly believe now is the time for us to tackle difficult and intractable issues or risk being left behind as the world races ahead.
The events of the past year upended and unsettled us, but also accelerated and mandated changes that arguably would have taken much longer to accomplish. Now that we are here, we must take advantage and reinvent ourselves as a profession and certainly as an association. There is no turning back.
To remain relevant, we cannot continue doing things the way we have always done them before.
Some of you are progressive and liberal and others are deeply conservative in your views. However, we can still speak to the importance of the issues and we can find points of commonality, even if we do not yet have clearly established NYSBA positions.
I look forward to working with you all.