The Wells College Association of Alumnae and Alumni has selected Ann Taber Pfau ’70, Chief Administrative Judge of the State of New York, as the recipient of the 2011 Alumnae Award. Wells annually confers the Alumnae Award on a graduate who has reached a level of high achievement in her profession, in volunteer and community work, or in service to the College. The award will be presented on June 4 at the College’s Convocation Ceremony, in Aurora, New York.
Judge Pfau, who will be honored for her outstanding contributions to the judiciary, is the first woman to serve as chief administrative judge in New York State. She is also an acting Supreme Court Judge for Kings County (Brooklyn).
The award cites Judge Pfau’s outstanding accomplishments in ensuring the efficient administration of justice in New York. Michael Getnick, immediate past president of the New York State Bar Association, says, “Despite very challenging times, Judge Pfau’s temperament and demeanor are an example of what it takes to come to consensus and to work together to fulfill the goal of access to justice for all New Yorkers.”
As chief administrative judge, Ann Pfau supervises the administration and operation of the New York State Court System. Ronald Younkins, Chief of Operations of the Office of Court Administration, describes Judge Pfau’s job as “the equivalent of being the CEO of a giant corporation,” with an important difference: the budget of the court system is entirely controlled by the New York State legislature.
The New York State judiciary is “a behemoth bureaucracy,” says Renee Forgensi Minarik ’80, a Monroe County Court of Claims judge and fellow Wells College graduate who nominated Judge Pfau for the award. The system has an annual budget of $2.5 billion, 365 courthouses, 1,300 judges and some 18,000 non-judicial employees.
The court system deals with everyone from giant corporations to ordinary citizens, many of whom present themselves without counsel and in need of legal aid. In the past decade, the number of litigants increased by 750,000. “It is Ann’s job and passion to see that every one of these people gets justice,” says Jeremy Weinstein, deputy administrative judge for Queens.
Throughout her career, Judge Pfau has pioneered a system of alternative dispute resolution throughout the court system, providing access to mediation that allows many New Yorkers to more efficiently resolve their legal issues. In 2001, the New York State Alternative Dispute Resolution Association presented the Andrew Thomas PeaceBuilder Award to Judge Pfau in honor of her achievements in this area.
Bryant Sanders, a Wells College junior, interned for Judge Pfau in 2008. “Her job isn’t flashy,” he says, “but if you live in New York State, she’s making a difference for you. The changes she has made and is making are improving the court administration statewide and directly benefiting citizens at the grass roots level.”
In 2008, Judge Pfau, on behalf of Chief Judge Judith Kaye, developed the Residential Mortgage Foreclosures Program. The pilot program, debuted in Queens, an area especially hard hit by the foreclosure crisis, instituted court-held settlement conferences for all residential foreclosure cases. It was one of the nation’s first court-initiated efforts aimed at bringing lenders and homeowners together to try to reach mutually agreeable resolutions that avoid home loss. As the pilot project was being implemented, the legislature in Albany enacted provisions mandating settlement conferences in residential foreclosures involving subprime loans. And, in 2009, the legislature broadened the provisions to extend settlement conferences to a majority of residential foreclosure cases. In order to secure more representation for homeowners throughout the settlement conference process, Judge Pfau built partnerships with legal service providers and housing counseling service providers.
“Above all, Judge Pfau is concerned about the image of the courts in their interaction with the community,” says Judge Weinstein, of Queens. As an example, he cites the case of Sean Bell, who was gunned down by police in Queens in 2008. “No case is heard in a vacuum,” he says, “but this one was particularly volatile.” Judge Pfau stayed in touch with Judge Weinstein at every step, as he handled the case. She saw to it that judges were appointed without bias, that juror selection was justly done and that the case was heard fairly. “After the case was decided, we got two letters,” says Judge Weinstein: “One from the police and one from the victim’s family and both thanked us for our fairness in handling the case.”
First appointed chief administrative judge in 2007 by then Chief Judge Kaye, Judge Pfau was reappointed by Judge Jonathan Lippman in 2009, when he succeeded Judge Kaye. Before Judge Pfau’s 2007 appointment, she served as first deputy chief administrative judge, a position specially created by Judge Lippman. She has served in the Office of Court Administration since 1990 and has worked in the New York State Judiciary since her graduation in 1984 from Brooklyn Law School, which presented its Alumni of the Year Award to her in 2003.
Judge Pfau earned her B.A. in religion, with a special focus on Far Eastern Religions. Before entering law school, she earned an M.A. in special education at Columbia University, learned Braille and taught disabled children and adults.
Judge Pfau recalls addressing the Honors Convocation at Wells in 1990, delivering a message about the importance of a liberal arts education. “I emphasized the very close connection between my career in law and my academic background,” she says. “My education taught me to decipher what I read and to be analytical. If you start with that background, you will find what you love, and you will do it well.”
Judge Pfau and her husband, Peter, have resided in Brooklyn since 1977. They are the proud parents of two sons and two grandchildren.