The American Bar Association has designated "The Rule of Law," pride of our nation, as the theme for this golden anniversary Law Day celebration. In inviting submissions, the Law Journal suggests that we address the meaning of the rule of law and relate it to our own New York experience.
Great idea! Lawyers and judges speak so often of the rule of law, instinctively knowing what it is, but in fact that lofty concept is hard to define. It's much easier to say what the rule of law is not. We say we're a nation of laws, not of individuals, that we are ruled by the force of law, not by the law of force. Indeed, our celebration of Law Day 50 years ago began as a counterpoint to the Soviet Union's May Day display of military force as its unifying principle. That is what our nation is not. The rule of law is our nation's unifying principle.
Regrettably, all of that communicates little tangible information to the public, and the public needs to understand why it should value the rule of law. So I take very seriously the Law Journal's invitation to define the rule of law in a way that is personally meaningful to me. The rule of law is the essential underpinning of our democratic society. It assures freedom, equality and justice. The rule of law is rooted primarily in our constitutions, the values they define and the government structure they establish to secure those values: three separate, independent branches that check and balance one another, dual sovereignties - state and federal; and ultimate federal supremacy.
As head of New York State's Third Branch, and especially at this moment in my tenure, I want to devote the remainder of my allotted space to the centrality of the judicial branch to the rule of law. And although I recognize the vital role of the bar as well, I want to focus on independent courts as a cornerstone of our democracy. Independent courts give meaning to our constitutions. Without an effective, independent court system to protect and preserve our laws and values, even the most eloquently stated principles would be mere paper promises.
Called the "weakest" or "least dangerous," the judicial branch is perhaps better described as the least understood, beginning with the terminology "judicial independence" and "independent courts," which to some signal arrogance, imperialism, freedom from accountability. Not at all true. More accurately, we are neutral and impartial - the only nonpolitical branch of government. Fair and impartial courts mean that we make decisions and resolve disputes on the facts and law alone, not as a result of political winds, or who you are, or lobbying.
New York state court dockets - topping an astounding four million new filings a year - include every imaginable human controversy, and then some. Has the Constitution been violated? How should a statute or regulation be read? What is the common law, and does it meet the needs of modern-day society? The decisions of our judges affect every aspect of life - criminal charges, family litigation, estates, Workers' Compensation and teacher tenure, personal injury and property damage, malpractice, zoning and environmental regulation, landlord-tenant issues, business problems. You name it, we've got it. New York state courts hold the government to its promises and protect individuals from government overreaching; they clarify the respective responsibilities of one branch to another; they peaceably adjudicate disputes between citizens. They protect the rights of the state to prosecute criminal wrongdoing and of the defendant to a fair trial.
Our dedicated judges resolve their incredibly demanding dockets with skill, care and efficiency. And even while concentrating on the day-to-day business of managing and resolving their caseloads, the courts have also successfully integrated significant improvements in operations - for example, jury reform and problem-solving courts (including drug courts, community courts, domestic violence courts and mental health courts which are widely replicated). Where we can do better - always we want to - I mention just a few areas of ongoing attention: court restructuring, Town and Village Justice Court operations, the state's indigent defense system and pro bono civil legal services, judicial elections and matrimonial litigation.
We've seen survey after survey in which the public reveals its lack of understanding and appreciation of the courts, and studies revealing that the more knowledgeable people are about the courts the more confidence they have in us. In the court system we have innumerable community outreach initiatives, and recently launched a Center for Courts and the Community. Educating the public is a challenging process. We need to do more. I hope all of us will be inspired this Law Day 2008 to recognize our fair and impartial judiciary as a key component of the rule of law. Judith S. Kaye is Chief Judge of the State of New York.