Acting Supreme Court Judge Kelly O’Neill Levy discusses her transition from Bronx Family Court to the Harlem
Community Justice Center, where she applies problem-solving strategies to both family and housing cases. May
JUDGE KELLY O’NEILL
LEVY: Always remember that the person who is before you—that the problem they’re coming to court with could
be the most important problem they have in their lives.
ROB WOLF: Hi, I’m Rob Wolf, director
of communications at the Center for Court Innovation. Welcome to another New Thinking podcast. Today I’m in
the Harlem community Justice Center with acting Supreme Court Judge Kelly O’Neill Levy, who came to the justice
center in January of 2013, just a few months ago, from the Bronx Family Court, where she was handling child abuse
and neglect cases. I thought we’d sit down and talk a little bit about the transition to her new position and
her vision for the work that she’ll be doing here, and has been doing here the last few months. So welcome to
JUDGE KELLY O’NEILL LEVY: Thank you, Rob. It’s a pleasure to be able to sit
down and talk with you about the Harlem Community Justice Center.
ROB WOLF: Transitions sometimes
pose challenges as well as opportunities, and I was wondering what you’ve seen so far as far as your challenges
and opportunities as you’ve made the transition from a more conventional New York City family court to a community
court setting, where you’re hearing both family and housing cases, as well as interacting more with the community.
JUDGE KELLY O’NEILL LEVY: There have been challenges as far as getting up to speed. We’ve worked really
hard to get up to speed, but many of the issues that are facing the litigants that we have in Bronx Family Court,
or the issues that are underlying people’s concerns here in housing court are the same. And what is wonderful
about what we are doing here is often you hear when you’re listening to a litigant, other problems—unrelated
necessarily—to non-payment. And the beauty of the Harlem Community Justice Center is we have resources right here.
We have people to assist these litigants in the underlying problems, whether it’s mental health, whether it’s
adult protective services.
ROB WOLF: So it sounds like it’s a more holistic approach.
JUDGE KELLY O’NEILL LEVY: Yes. It’s the holistic approach and we’re thinking of all different
ways that we can be serving this community in our court. One of the things that we are going to be launching in the
next few months—custody and visitation cases that will originate in the Harlem Community Justice Center. Litigants
will have an opportunity to choose whether they want to commence a case for custody and visitation in our case, or
go downtown and commence the case in the downtown family court. I’m also going to be doing Article 78 cases,
which are appeals for an administrative body. So if somebody has an appeal based on a decision that the New York
City Housing Authority has done, they have, in the past, had to go to Supreme Court and do an Article 78 case based
on an administrative decision that has taken place in, for instance, a NYCHA case. Now if I am the judge who’s
handling the landlord-tenant case, I will also be handling the administrative appeal. And that also is a holistic
approach because unfortunately what has happened in the past is sometimes the Supreme Court judge was unaware of
what was going on in the landlord-tenant case, and the person could have possibly gotten a victory in Supreme Court
but by the time that case was heard, they may have already been evicted because that judge was unaware of the status
of exactly where the landlord-tenant case was at that time.
ROB WOLF: So it sounds like there
are a lot of advantages to brining the cases here to the Harlem Community Justice Center. It’s local for the
litigant. They don’t have to travel as far. It’s more comprehensive because you have a fuller understanding
of all the aspects of the case, and there’s also services here like the housing resource center that can support
litigant and landlords as well.
JUDGE KELLY O’NEILL LEVY: We’re very fortunate, because we
have this resource center right in the building. So both tenants and landlords can go to the resource center and
get assistance on how to navigate the process, which can be very intimidating, as we all know.
WOLF: So let’s talk about community engagement. That’s a guiding principal of a community court like the
Harlem Community Justice Center. Why do you think community engagement is important, and how is the justice center
giving you opportunities to work more closely with the community?
JUDGE KELLY O’NEILL LEVY: It’s
essential that we have community engagement because we are here to serve the community and it’s given us many
opportunities. We have the resource community in the courtroom. She is able to reach out to the service providers
that are in the area that are assisting our litigants to see what they need and how we can assist them better. We
also have a church that’s right across the street that is hosting programs for our reentry program, which assists
people formally incarcerated to get back into society.
ROB WOLF: We’ve talked a lot about
your housing cases, but I know you also handle family court cases. Maybe you could tell me a little bit about what
those case are and how the Harlem Community Justice Center does things maybe a little differently?
KELLY O’NEILL LEVY: We handle juvenile delinquency cases and custody and visitation cases. The things that we do
differently is that the custody and visitation cases, there’s mediation to help parents work out the conflicts
that they’re having. And with regard to the juvenile delinquency cases, we have the services here in order for
these families to be able to work through the juvenile delinquency justice process. Each child, they are living at
home and they meet with the social worker in the court to assist them in making the changes they need to make in
order to ensure that they don’t have any re-arrests in the future. Do they need drug treatment program? Do they
need counseling? And one of the things we just started, somewhat based on the work that I had done in Bronx family
court, is to recognize that the parents play such a critical role in making sure that the child is able to make those
changes. So we’ve started a parent support group. Some of the parents have been able to really turn things around,
assist in transferring their children’s school, helping to enforce curfew, and what we wanted to do was have
those parents be able to assist the other parents who may be having struggles with getting their child to adhere
to a curfew, or navigating the process of transferring them to a different school. The other component to the parenting
group is just an education of what the whole juvenile delinquency justice system is about, and what they can expect.
And we think that this is really a helpful new component that we’ve implemented in the Harlem Community Justice
ROB WOLF: You’ve had a chance to learn about the community so I wonder what have
you learned and seen so far?
JUDGE KELLY O’NEILL LEVY: Well this has traditionally been an underserved
community and one of the things that is great about this court is that the size is less intimidating for people than
a traditional court. We are on a much smaller scale because there is only one courtroom, there is only one judge,
and that gives us an opportunity to do exciting things which can, we hope, build confidence in the justice system.
One of the things that we are doing is we are translating pre-printed stipulations of settlement and right now many
attorneys come to court with pre-printed stipulations of settlement that they, then, negotiate with tenants and insert
the applicable numbers and time frames that a tenant would have to comply with in order to resolve their case. And
there are many Spanish-speaking litigants who would not have the benefit of leaving the courthouse with a document
that they could truly understand. And so what we have started is a process of getting the pre-printed stipulations
of settlement translated into Spanish. Of course the document that I would review and sign would all be in English,
but the Spanish speaking litigant would have a reference when they left in Spanish. And I think that that alone would
be one step in assisting public confidence in our justice system.
ROB WOLF: That translated stipulation,
other judges could use around the city because it’s a uniform language, I assume?
O’NEILL LEVY: Yes, certainly. If some of the larger firms who may practice in other boroughs in the city, they certainly
could use that translated stipulated if they find that they’re having that same issue.
WOLF: So do you have a philosophy of judicial leadership? I know you’ve only been here a few months so far,
but what does it mean to you to be a community court judge?
JUDGE KELLY O’NEILL LEVY: If I had
any philosophy of judicial leadership, it would be to always remember that the person who is before you—that the
problem they’re coming to court with could be the most important problem they have in their lives. And to always
make sure that they feel that they’ve had an opportunity to be heard, and that they’ve had a fair adjudication
of their case. And so one of the things I really enjoy about being a community court judge is that I am able to give
people that opportunity to be heard, and I am able to consider whatever their issues are, and really try to solve
ROB WOLF: Well I want to thank you very much for sharing some of your experience
with our listeners. I’ve been speaking with acting Supreme Court Judge Kelly O’Neill Levy, about her experience
here as presiding judge over the family and housing cases at the Harlem Community Justice Center.
KELLY O’NEILL LEVY: Thank you, Robert, it’s been my pleasure.
ROB WOLF: I’m Rob Wolf,
director of communications at the Center for Court Innovation. To listen to this podcast and others, visit our website
at www.courtinnovation.org or iTunes. Thanks very much for listening.