Chief judge, attorney general promote civic engagement in Law Day ceremony

Legislative Gazette file photo
New York’s Chief Judge, Janet DiFiore, says the courts are working to ensure that no voter is disenfranchised this year.

Chief Judge Janet DiFiore, Attorney General Letitia James and President of the New York State Bar Association Hank Greenberg held a virtual Law Day ceremony on Friday, May 1. 

On the centennial of the 19th Amendment, which gave women the right to vote, the theme of this year’s program was civic engagement and voter turnout.

Law Day is held May 1 every year to pay tribute to the role of law in American society. The day is usually marked with a celebration in the New York State Court of Appeals in Albany. This year, the leaders recorded video messages for the people of New York encouraging voter participation in what DiFiore called a “critical” election coming this November.

The leaders emphasized the commitment of the justice system to upholding the right to vote in the midst of voter suppression efforts around the country, such as voter identification laws, which James called “the new poll tax,” reduced voting opportunities, and gerrymandering. 

They also addressed voting difficulties presented by the COVID-19 pandemic. Greenberg pointed out the logistical problems in in-person voting, including a potential shortage of poll workers and closings and restrictions of poll sites such as schools, churches and nursing homes.

“The greatest immediate threat to voting rights is not man made,” Greenberg said. “Our voting laws and systems were not designed to conduct elections in the midst of a public health crisis. Voters should not have to choose between disease and democracy, risking their health and exercising a civic duty.”

Some states are attempting to deal with these problems by postponing their primary elections and expanding vote-by-mail options.

“We must ensure that no one is disenfranchised by the pandemic, and that every American is able to safely cast their vote,” DiFiore said.

James ensured New Yorkers that she would work to mobilize voters and protect their right to vote by establishing an election day hotline, 800-771-7755,  staffed by attorneys from her office to help “troubleshoot and resolve a range of issues encountered by voters at their poll sites.” She also stressed her commitment to enforcing voter reforms passed last year.

“The fact is, as we approach the 2020 election, too many Americans, women and men, are still fighting for the unfettered right to vote,” James said. “It is an American tragedy that 100 years after the passage of the nineteenth amendment, 56 years after the passage of the Civil Rights Act, and 55 years after Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act into law, we face renewed attempts to deny the basic right to vote, especially in communities of color.”

Though all nonessential court services were canceled in late March, DiFiore spoke about the state bar’s commitment to providing access to justice in the midst of the pandemic by shifting the court system to online video conferencing in order to provide emergency and essential services to New Yorkers.

“Our message to the public, particularly this year, must be strong and unwavering,” DiFiore said. “Our justice system is strong and resilient. Our respective institutions are working together to ensure access to justice, and we are supporting and upholding the rule of law.”