“Positivity is Power”
Positivity has been in short supply in public life. The vitriolic nature of politics and this current presidential election season has been disheartening to most of us in public office. The barrage of negative comments, the name calling, and pernicious gossip – it’s all given public service a bad name.
Like most of you, I was brought up to believe in the importance of public service. My mom showed me through her actions every day what the true meaning of public service is.
She volunteered in our school, served on agricultural advisory committees for our local congressman, accompanied public health nurses visiting elderly neighbors - all while working on our family farm and raising four children.
She taught me that being a citizen means taking responsibility for what needs to be done in your community in whatever way you are able to contribute. And just as importantly, to do so without expecting thanks or recognition in return. That was what participatory democracy meant in our house. She set an example that it is not just your responsibility - it should be your privilege – to work to be a positive force in the community.
I have also had the benefit of that example from people here in the magistrates association. The judges I know exemplify the best of what public service can be. Your work serves as an example to people in the community every day. It demonstrates the example of public service that I aspire to.
This is particularly difficult because as judges we see people at the lowest points in their lives. Not every case is a success story. Political columnist Bill Vaughn once said “It is the true patriot who gets a ticket and rejoices in the fact that our justice system works”. Only judges know how rare that is. If you have had even one defendant who comes back to say “thank you” or lets you know that you made a positive impact – that’s remarkable. That has happened to me and it is transformative.
Our town and village courts are often a defendant’s only experience with the criminal justice system. That makes it even more important to be mindful of the golden rule - to show a defendant the same respect that we demand for ourselves. When that happens, it is a positive reflection on not only the judge, but the criminal justice system as a whole.
We have all read the stories of judges who failed to remember that tenet. Too frequently the image of our judiciary is tarnished by an individual who failed to do their job. There is a theory known as “Maslow’s hammer” which describes the tendency for over-reliance on a familiar tool. Simply put, “When your only tool is a hammer, all your problems look like nails”. Punishment is certainly merited at times. However, I believe that education should be the tool of first resort. Education is a preemptive strike – not a hammer – and one that makes us better judges and better able to serve our communities effectively.
As judges we do ourselves a disservice when we do not focus on education first to make that positive change happen. Let’s work to enhance local training opportunities for our clerks and judges. We are professionals from different fields, yet we perform the same tasks. The different perspectives brought to our work can be inspiring - especially if shared with colleagues. Smart, well-educated, and professionally accomplished colleagues enhance not only the public image of the judiciary, but the effectiveness of the court system overall.
It is an exciting time for our association. We face remarkable changes, great challenges and exciting opportunities. Trying to stay adaptable and responsive to complex topics is difficult at best. Let’s continue to keep the lines of communication open, so that we can bring inspired people together in different forums, to ensure that our organization remains strong, relevant, and connected.
The philosophy that the future can be better than the past, and that together we have the power to make it so, has been integral to the New York State Magistrates Association for over a century – because positivity is power.