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In the Balance: Edwina Richardson-Mendelson

May 25, 2018

The Honorable Edwina Richardson-Mendelson is Class of ’88 alumna celebrated for her commitment to Family Law and Criminal Justice. Currently a Judge of the Court of Claims, as well as a state-wide Deputy Chief Administrative Judge for Justice Initiatives, she also presides over the New York County Supreme Court Criminal Term Youth Part. Read on for why starting her day at 4AM is vital to her success, how she seeks progress and not perfection, and why her legal degree wasn’t the finish line but a mile-marker in her marathon. In this spotlight, she shares how she gets it done.

 

 

 

 

On her typical morning

My workday mornings begin at 4 a.m. when I awake.  I work very, very hard, but I like to say that I play hard as well, so I am a fan of self-care and wellness.  For me, self-care is rising early enough to do all that I want to and like to do before my work day begins.  That includes mediation, spiritual devotion time, exercise and a really nice cup of coffee.   I leave home for work at 6 a.m. and my work day often ends late at night.  Even with self care to fortify me, there is always far more work for me to do than time in which to accomplish things.  I aspire to a season of less stress and the possibility of fewer than the hundreds of emails I currently have waiting to be addressed in my inbox.  I remind myself each morning that I seek progress and NOT perfection, and try to do what is mine to do that day.

 

On keeping Justice top of mind

 It’s easy to keep Justice front and center in my day-to-day life and in my larger career narrative.  I lead our state court system’s Office for JUSTICE Initiatives as Deputy Chief Administrative Judge for JUSTICE Initiatives!  In addition to spearheading programs involving child welfare and juvenile justice, including implementation of the new law raising the age of criminal responsibility in N.Y.S., I also lead the state court system’s Access to JUSTICE Program.  Our mandate is to ensure meaningful access to justice for those passing through the doors of every New York State housing court, civil court, criminal court and family court—regardless of income, background or special need.

 

On her education and life-long learning 

I was fortunate to have the opportunity to receive a fantastic legal education that actually began at the college level – in the Urban Legal Studies (ULS) Program of City College (CCNY), where Haywood Burns was my Dean.  ULS was a 6-year BA/JD program where my first year at CUNY Law School also served as my final year of College.  From the very start in the ULS program, my education was focused on law and law-related courses, which served me very well.  However, by the time I graduated from CUNY Law School, I was well-educated on the law and felt less than capable in other areas.  My reason for pursuing other advanced degrees was to broaden my knowledge base lens beyond law, while also having my studies relate to my work in law.  While pursuing my Masters and Ph.D. in Criminal Justice, I was able to take courses in English, Sociology and Psychology.  It was fun and helpful to me in my work as a Family Court practitioner.  I was also able to supplement my education and income by teaching undergraduates as an Adjunct Professor at John Jay College where I was pursuing my advanced degrees.  I must admit that I loved school and being a student, so continuing my education while practicing law as a newer attorney worked in my favor.  Also, after taking the LSAT to enter Law School and the bar exam to enter the legal profession, preparing for the GRE graduate school entry exam wasn’t as daunting a task as it would have been had I not already experienced difficult standardized exams.  I encourage students to explore different forms of education beyond a law degree in areas of interest to them.  I was a single parent and solo practitioner during my post law school studies, and it took many years to complete my advanced degrees.  For me, it was certainly a journey more akin to a marathon than to a sprint.

 

On the most pressing call to action for advocates of children and families

I am now a Judge of the Court of Claims, as well as state-wide Deputy Chief Administrative Judge for Justice Initiatives.  As such, I am primarily involved in court policy and planning.  Those who know me know that Family Court is the court of my heart.   NYC Family Court refers to me as their “Administrative Judge Emeritus,” a title of honor that I plan to hold forever.  Family Court is where I spent most of my years as a lawyer and judge.  More recently, I shifted my judicial focus to the criminal arena, where I presided over the New York County Supreme Court Criminal Term Youth Part involving cases where adolescents as young as 13 are prosecuted as adults.  There are plenty of public interest areas in need of enhanced child and family advocacy.  As we implement the new law raising the age of criminal responsibility in N.Y.S., there has been recent and necessary focus on appropriate juvenile justice interventions for youth.  Also there has been recent consideration of the intersection of immigration and housing issues for families.

 

On processing trauma 

It’s difficult to answer this.  It’s been 30 years since I’ve graduated from CUNY Law School, and I have spent my entire legal career hearing stories of pain, abuse and neglect, and making critically important decisions for the people who have appeared in my courtroom.  I understand and appreciate the impact of vicarious trauma that legal and other professionals endure from our work with people in deep need and crisis.  As I stated earlier, I work hard and I play hard as well, and this ‘playing’ helps me disconnect.  I’ve recently re-started my long-ago abandoned love affair with my cello, whom I call Orville.  I take music lessons, and play every chance I get.  I’m sounding a bit less awful.  I have a hook rug project going with no rush to completion, and I take fresh-air walks and ride a bike when I can.   Additionally, beginning my work day with mediation and spiritual devotion time continually renews my faith and strengthens me to deal to the best of my ability with these painful and tragic circumstances which bring litigants to court.

 

On recommendations she’d like to see adopted and institutionalized by NY state courts

What an interesting question.  What comes to mind is gratitude. I get to wake up every single day and participate in work about which I am passionate; work that is important and fulfilling.  I get to try to make the world better.  I’m so fortunate to be able to do that.  I’ve never made any recommendations that came just from me.  I habitually surround myself with wise and hard-working people – many with whom I disagree on occasion.  They all inform recommendations I make.  I’m deeply privileged to serve in justice system improving work.  Lucky me!

 

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