This month, I am turning again to the question of why the Rochester legal community is such a special place to practice law. One reason is that Rochester lawyers are willing to take on community issues, often under the leadership of the Monroe County Bar Association. I have written before on the close collaboration between our judiciary and the MCBA; today, I want to tell you about an MCBA-driven initiative intended to enhance bench-bar relations. For many years, the MCBA conducted a confidential evaluation of sitting judges, allowing judges to obtain valuable feedback from the lawyers who practice in their courtroom. A very small group of well-respected lawyers met with the evaluated judge to deliver the feedback on a confidential basis. Sitting judge evaluations ended several years ago. And, in 2017, after an extended deliberative process, the MCBA suspended the evaluation of judicial candidates and refocused its efforts on voter education, organizing public forums and panel discussions on public radio.
Over the last two years, through the MCBA Bench and Bar Committee and a subcommittee chaired by Jim Grossman, the courts and the MCBA have worked together to design a new, completely voluntary and confidential process to provide sitting judges with valuable feedback from lawyers practicing in their courtrooms. The objective of this process is to gather insight from the other side of the bench and incent everyone to work to the common goal of making litigation efficient and reducing costs for litigants. The survey was emailed to all lawyers in the area (not just MCBA members) and consists of about 30 questions directed to the essential qualities of judicial temperament and demeanor, courtroom and case management, impartiality and knowledge and application of the law. To be clear, this is an entirely different process from the process for evaluation of judicial candidates, with several novel features. First, the process is voluntary — the judges who are participating opted into the process — and there were more judges who wanted to receive the benefit of feedback than we were able to accommodate in this first year. Second, leveraging technology, the results will be accessed only by the judge being evaluated. If the judge wants to discuss the results with the subcommittee, that option will be available, but otherwise not even the committee will have access to the results. Confidential means confidential. Third, to avoid any politicization of the process, the confidentiality is mutual: The judges have also agreed to maintain the confidentiality of the information and not disclose the results.
This is just one of the ways in which the MCBA is acting on that goal and investing its resources to make Rochester better. We are grateful to Judge Debra Martin, Judge Scott Odorisi and Judge Charles Schiano for raising their hands to participate in this important effort. If you did not receive or inadvertently deleted the email with the link, please contact Liz Novak at firstname.lastname@example.org. But please act quickly — the survey links will expire this Friday, Feb. 14.
In another collaborative bench-bar effort, the MCBA, joined by the Commercial and Federal Section of the New York State Bar Association, sponsored a reception to welcome Judge Scott Odorisi and his staff to the Commercial Division. The event was a sellout, demonstrating that lawyers value informal opportunities to network with judges. If you missed this event, or even if you attended, consider attending a “Behind the Scenes Conversation” program with Judge Odorisi and his staff on March 5 in Courtroom 404 at the Hall of Justice, starting at 12:30 — at no charge. You will learn about preferences, procedures and processes in the Commercial Division for the Seventh Judicial District. But you must RSVP in advance to attend, at https://www.mcba.org/calendar/register/?eventno=6829 or by an email to email@example.com.
Bench-bar collaboration is not limited to Exchange Street between the Telesca Center and the Hall of Justice, but rather extends across Main Street and down State Street to the federal courthouse as well. On Wednesday, Feb. 12, the MCBA will hold a CLE and reception at the federal courthouse to learn about recent changes to the Local Federal Rules, the court’s new pro bono program and to welcome Magistrate Judge Mark Petersen to the bench. These informal and informative interactions between bench and bar help everyone work together.
Another extraordinary collaboration will occur Thursday evening, February 13, at Nazareth College, when the MCBA, the Konar Center for Tolerance and Jewish Studies at Nazareth College and the Levine Center to End Hate of the Jewish Community Federation of Greater Rochester will present a program on working together — the legal community and the larger community — to develop a response to anti-Semitism. Rochester has a long history of invoking the rule of law to craft community solutions to confront issues impacting our community. This innovative and important program grew from an idea of what lawyers could do to proactively address and eradicate hate speech — a scourge of our times. Perhaps this program will provide a template for the legal community to work together to address the challenges we collectively face.
Is it a coincidence that our city played such a significant role in the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment? I think not; community activism and a strong civic commitment are part of Rochester’s DNA, whether you were born here or, like me, are a transplant. In this year of 2020, we mark the 200th birthday of Ms. Anthony as well as the centennial of the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment. This is not just a recognition of our history and past accomplishments as voter access remains an issue in some communities. Across the country, bar associations will celebrate “Your Vote, Your Voice, Our Democracy: the 19th Amendment at 100.” On April 30, we will honor Rochester’s legacy with our own Law Day celebration, with a CLE and reception looking back at Susan B. Anthony as well as forward, building on her work to preserve the right to vote at the heart of our democracy.
From the last century into the present and beyond, the MCBA has an important role to inform, educate, engage and mobilize lawyers and the larger community to forge collaborations that can effect positive change. We invite you to join the conversation.
Carolyn G. Nussbaum is president of the Monroe County Bar Association and is a partner and litigator at Nixon Peabody LLP. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.