In responding to a generic, uninspired query about what the lifetime achievement award she recently received from the New York Law Journal means to her, Justice Betty Weinberg Ellerin replied, “Why don’t we just talk, and see what we come up with?”
There’s a lot to talk about. Justice Weinberg Ellerin, senior counsel in Alston & Bird’s New York office, served more than 20 years as an Appellate Division jurist. She was the first woman appointed as Deputy Chief Administrative Judge of the State of New York for the New York City Courts, where she was responsible for the operation of all the trial courts within the city. Following that position, she became the first woman appointed as Associate Justice of the Appellate Division of the Supreme Court of the State of New York (First Department) and as Presiding Justice again as the first, and to date, only woman to so serve.
She may not like the question, but she is proud of her service, and what it has meant, especially for others. “I’m happy that I have been able to help a lot of people over the years—litigants, practitioners, colleagues. That means a lot.” She is also proud to have succeeded in her career at a time when it was not a given that a woman would have the opportunity to succeed. “Women were not readily accepted when I was coming up, particularly in this profession. Sometimes I had to push against some pretty strong prejudices.”
Her voice brightens. “But what I am most proud of is that I did it all while raising a wonderful family. I have three terrific children and three beautiful grandchildren. That is a lifetime achievement.”
Justice Weinberg Ellerin, characteristically, though, is less interested in lauding the past than in focusing on the work yet to be done. She recently has been appointed by New York Governor Cuomo to the state’s Commission to Investigate Public Corruption, and designated as a deputy attorney general in this capacity. “Our task is to investigate public corruption in the state and provide recommendations as to its prevention.” Election corruption in particular has become a major issue in New York, and Justice Weinberg Ellerin has strong thoughts on unlimited contributions and loopholes in the system. “These things are not helpful to the citizen,” she says. Options like public financing “give real people a stake in the election process.”
She’ll be working with a team of legal leaders—district attorneys from around the state, as well as the top echelon of the private practice and nonprofit worlds— and brings a judge’s eye for detail and appreciation for due process to the commission’s work. “I’m not partisan. Once you’re on the bench, you have to give all that up. It’s about looking at the bigger picture.”
Justice Weinberg Ellerin was instrumental in the establishment of New York State Judicial Committee of Women in the Courts, a group that works to secure the equal justice, equal treatment and equal opportunity for women in the New York court system, and remains very active there today, serving as its chair. “We focus on litigants, victims and practitioners—right now, a lot of our work centers on domestic violence and the illegal trafficking of women.” In fact, on September 25, the New York Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman (“my protégé,” says Justice Weinberg Ellerin proudly) announced a new initiative that will serve as the nation's first statewide system of courts to help prostitutes escape a life of exploitation and violence. The state-wide system, to be up and running by the end of October, will feature presiding judges trained in the dynamics of sex trafficking and the services available to victims.
For Justice Weinberg Ellerin, it is an honor to be named by the New York Law Journal’s list of 16 lifetime achievement award recipients that includes her “judicial hero” U.S. District Court Judge Jack Weinstein. But she doesn’t spend too much time looking back. There are people to help today. And more to help tomorrow. “I’ll keep working until the end,” she says, and means it.