Law Day 2001 Speech


Judith S. Kaye

For my Colleagues and myself, welcome to Court of Appeals Hall and to our Law Day celebration. And sincere thanks to the fabulous Onteora Marching Band -- especially to its director Steven Murphy -- for opening today's program with such zest and spirit.

Each year Law Day is celebrated across America to honor the strengths and ideals of our democracy, and to highlight our individual rights and responsibilities as citizens of this great nation. As comfortable -- perhaps even complacent -- as most of us are about our status as American citizens, for many this heritage is not very old.

In fact, this very morning, right next door at the Albany County Courthouse, Presiding Justice Anthony Cardona and Administrative Judge Thomas Keegan presided over the naturalization of a group of new citizens, in the presence of family and friends. Happily, several of these new citizens agreed to join us today to celebrate Law Day. Also happily with us today are several American families who have adopted foreign-born children. Would all of you -- indeed, would all naturalized citizens in the audience -- please stand and accept our heartfelt welcome and our heartfelt applause? [And please do remain standing for a moment.]

Next, I'd like to ask that all those whose parents immigrated to America please stand. [And again, do remain standing for just a moment.]

Next, if your grandparent or another ancestor immigrated to America, please stand.

And finally, would any native Americans please stand.

I now invite you all to join with me in singing the Star Spangled Banner, our national anthem.

* * * * *

In 1958, the American Bar Association founded Law Day, celebrating the Rule of Law, as a counterpart to the Soviet Union's May Day display of military might. Each year the Bar Association sets a theme that unifies Law Day celebrations throughout the nation. This year's theme is again "Celebrate our Freedom" -- which is the essential message of Law Day -- but this year's theme has a special new emphasis: "Protecting the Best Interests of Our Children." That term is familiar to lawyers and judges -- it's the standard for all sorts of legal issues affecting our youth. Because law unquestionably shapes the lives of so many children, the theme was chosen so that we might focus, together, on how our legal system might better protect the interests of children. This is an especially important theme for me.

I don't believe that the federal laws governing naturalization ever use the term "best interests of children." So -- you ask -- how does this year's Law Day theme bear any relation to the naturalization of citizens? And why is the theme especially important for me?

I answer those questions from my personal experience, as well as that of Judge Cardona. Both of us are children of immigrants -- Judge Cardona's father came to America from Italy, my own mother and father from Eastern Europe. I still remember my father describing the land of his birth as "Poland, Russia or Germany, depending on which soldiers were there that day." It's hard even to imagine the level of oppression and hopelessness that drove my father -- a young man with nothing but his own dogged determination -- to leave his family and cross the ocean to America. His parents and family who remained behind never escaped the atrocities of Europe.

As we saw just a few moments ago, America truly is a land of immigrants, whether our children, our parents or grandparents; whether from Europe, Africa, Asia, South America, or anywhere else on Earth. Every immigrant, every family, every person here has a moving story to tell, leading up to the warm embrace of Lady Liberty. But since I have the extraordinary privilege of standing at the microphone, I can speak just a little more about my own parents. Both of them were naturalized, as adults, in the Third Department -- much like today's new citizens -- where on a farm not all that far from Albany they raised cows and chickens, and instilled incredible ambition in their son and daughter. This was, after all, America, the land of freedom and opportunity. "Work hard and there is no end to what you can accomplish," my parents taught me. "Do good and forget about it; do bad and worry about it," Judge Cardona's parents taught him. Judge Cardona and I both know how extraordinarily fortunate we are to have grown up in the loving, caring families we did.

What pleasure it would have given my mother and father to see me as the Chief Judge. Only parents could have believed such a thing might actually happen. What brought our families to these shores was hope for a future, for themselves, of course, but first and foremost for their children. That was true when they became citizens and it remains true of citizens to this very day. I hope that all of you have grand ambitions too, because -- and I quote my parents -- there is no end to what you can accomplish here in America. You can be a Chief Judge, a Presiding Justice, a Lieutenant Governor, Attorney General, State Bar President -- whatever you dream.

Bold as our own families' dreams and ambitions may have been, perhaps the most audacious dreamers of all were our country's founders who, more than two centuries ago, envisioned a nation under law, with freedom and equal opportunity at its core. That is our heritage, vigilantly safeguarded by the Rule of Law. And that is our debt to future generations. As we dream, aspire and achieve for ourselves and our own children, we must assure that all children have the same opportunity.

That debt we owe to future generations requires that we do all we can to secure our nation's ideals for our nation's children: that they have stable, caring homes to grow up in, as Judge Cardona and I had; that they enjoy the best possible physical and emotional health; and that they be educated and prepared to become productive members of society, with their own chance to reach for the stars. Would that every single child had that opportunity.

Today, all around us, we see children in need. They are in our courts and in our communities. Indeed, our fastest growing, most heartrending dockets are in the Family Courts -- hundreds of thousands of petitions filed annually concerning children in distress. Unthinkable tales of abuse, neglect, family dysfunction. I feel especially proud of our Family Courts -- many of them throughout the State having declared today Adoption Day, so they can move children speedily to permanency -- and of the many, many innovations within the courts to improve the lives of children. Every one of us can help children in need -- by joining in efforts to promote literacy and good health, by helping to strengthen neighborhood services for children, by assisting Youth Bureaus and Family Services and other such programs, by becoming foster parents, or mentors, or CASA volunteers, making a difference in the life of one child or many. You can help by pressing -- along with us -- for an increase in Assigned Counsel fees, so that litigants who cannot afford to retain lawyers for essential representation in Family and Criminal Court can get the help it is their right to have.

There is another facet to promoting the best interests of our children. The best interests of our children also require that they know their history as individuals and as Americans; that they hear the stories of their own immigrant forebears and America's founders; that they be trained in civics and the duties of citizenship; that they learn about the laws and courts that have a vital role in securing the freedom we enjoy -- and not just the bizarre television and movie portrayals. Throughout New York, schools are pairing with judges, lawyers and justice system employees to provide "real-life education" in these areas -- and I urge you all to participate. As part of that effort, I am delighted today to announce the Unified Court System's Public Affairs Website, with hands-on learning programs for children of all ages. You can access a Case-of-the-Month to chew on; you can arrange for speakers and court tours -- real and virtual; you can even "E-Mail a Judge." My colleagues will tell you what fun it is to e-mail a Judge. We do it all the time.

I want to close by relating a remarkable incident that occurred Saturday morning, back home in New York City, as I was out jogging and thinking hard about how I should conclude my Law Day message. Suddenly on the radio -- Public Radio International -- came a segment about the successes and travails of great Jewish musicians who fled Nazi Germany back in the 1930's for, of all places, Hollywood. That was followed by stories of three new Americans -- an African author now living and teaching in Massachusetts, a Vietnamese author and an Albanian singer now living in New York City -- all three having fled political turmoil in their homelands. I was enormously moved by their experiences, by what it meant for them to be in America. But above all I was struck by how strengthening it has been for us as a nation to welcome people from all corners of the world in their search for freedom.

The Vietnamese author quoted what he called a Yiddish proverb that especially caught my attention -- I had never heard it before. This is how it goes: "The son wants to remember what the father tries to forget." How important it is for all of us, sons and daughters of America, to remember -- to remember the stories of our parents and grandparents, hard as it may be for them to tell those stories; to remember our priceless heritage of freedom under law; and to remember children in need so that they, like us, can have their chance at the American dream. I know of no better way to assure that the freedoms we celebrate today will endure.