Remarks by NYCLA President Adrienne B. Koch at NYCLA Law Day May 21, 2024

Remarks by NYCLA President Adrienne B. Koch

Law Day Luncheon
The View at Battery Park, New York City

May 21,2024

Good afternoon.

I’m so pleased to welcome you to NYCLA’s annual Law Day lunch.  

When we gathered together for this event last year, it was the first time we were able to do so since 2019.  I think that among the things that hiatus taught us is never to take getting together like this for granted.  It’s a treasure, and I’m so glad to see you all here. 

One of the things that always makes this event special is the participation of so many members of our judiciary.  And this year is no exception.  I’d like to ask all of the judges in the room to please stand so that we can thank you for being here today and express our appreciation for all you do every day. 

Would everyone please join me in a round of applause?

And of course we’re particularly pleased to have as our special guests Justice Andrea Masley, who will be receiving the Capozzoli Gavel award; Justice Jeffrey Oing, who will present that award; and Justices Lizbeth Gonzalez and Schlomo Hagler, whom we honor today for 25 years of distinguished judicial service.

I also want to thank our Supreme Court Committee – and in particular the luncheon co-chairs Onya Brinson, Craig Kesch, and Russell Morris, together with NYCLA’s outstanding staff – for putting this event together.  It takes a lot of work to make it look so easy. 

I want to pause here for a second before I turn back to the remarks I prepared for today.

There was an article on the front page of yesterday’s Law Journal about legislation designed to ameliorate the effects of the so-called “Death Gamble.” Perhaps you saw it. NYCLA has been advocating on this issue for nearly a decade, and we’ve continued that advocacy in supporting this legislation.

It’s not perfect, as the article points out. But it’s unacceptable that our state pension rules put judges who remain on the bench past retirement age at risk of leaving considerably smaller benefits to their loved ones if, God forbid, they die in office. We’re happy to see this legislation gaining traction, and will continue our support for it. And seeing this in yesterday’s paper, I just had to mention it.

Now back to Law Day.

When President Eisenhower first established Law Day in 1958, he declared that “our moral and civic obligation” requires us “to preserve and strengthen” “the great heritage of liberty, justice, and equality under law which our forefathers bequeathed to us.”  “If civilization is to survive,” he said, “it must choose the rule of law.” 

That was at a very different point in the life of our Republic.  The Soviets had just successfully launched Sputnik 1.  Shortly before that, they’d developed the first intercontinental ballistic missile.  Those momentous events showed that we were in the throes of a technology war, and we seemed to be losing it. 

None of us can know exactly what was in Ike’s mind in 1958 when he established Law Day, but I can’t help thinking that perhaps he was trying, at least in part, to shift the focus of that time in history to a different battle – one that was not just about hearts and minds, but about how much we could accomplish simply by existing.  Because the very existence of a robust and thriving democracy like ours was a threat to authoritarianism everywhere. 

Fast forward to today.  We ultimately caught up in the technology war we were fighting in the late 1950s.  In fact, many people would say we won it.  But now we are embattled on a different front – the very one that President Eisenhower was so confident we could win.  As ABA President Mary Smith said in her own law day message: “At home and around the globe, autocrats and dictators threaten the rule of law.” 

This is certainly true.  We see it in attempts to undermine judicial independence; we see it in efforts to suppress participation in free and fair elections; we see it in the proliferation of cynicism and the corresponding uptick in adherents to the view that democracy itself is somehow degenerate. 

With what weapons do we fight against this?  The theme for this year’s Law Day – “Voices of Democracy” – reminds us of the most powerful one: our voices.  Because what President Eisenhower so eloquently described as “the great heritage of liberty, justice, and equality under law which our forefathers bequeathed to us” cannot work unless we use our voices – not only to speak out for what is right, but also to speak to one another honestly and with respect. 

As President Biden reminded us just two weeks ago, “no one should have to hide or be brave just to be themselves.”

Some of you may have noticed that I often quote Ruth Bader Ginsburg at moments like this.  I can’t help it.  In fact, I did so in the Law Day letter you have in your programs. 

But today I want to pivot to another hero: Thurgood Marshall. 

I want to knit together two powerful things he said.

The first is: “Where you see wrong or inequality or injustice, speak out, because this is your country. This is your democracy. Make it. Protect it. Pass it on.”

But the second is just as important: “In recognizing the humanity of our fellow beings, we pay ourselves the highest tribute.”
As lawyers, we have a special responsibility to use our voices to do both of those things – each one leavened with the other.  That isn’t always easy.  But it’s absolutely essential.  We must be the Voices of Democracy. 

Thank you all for joining us today, and for your support of NYCLA, of our honorees, and of the spirit of fellowship that is so important to our profession.  Please enjoy your lunch and the rest of the program.

I’m going to turn it back now to our luncheon chairs.