Justice for All

An agent of change in the judiciary, serving the public interest

Photograph of Judge Fern Fisher at a table with her arms folded in front of her

Credit: 2019 ALM Media Properties Fern Fisher has been a major figure in the New York judiciary and an innovator in the access-to-justice field.

When Fern A. Fisher ’78 had to list every place she had ever lived on her New York bar application, she filled two pages. She had moved frequently, as her mother, a domestic violence survivor, was pushed by poverty and evictions to move the family to new homes. On the day Fisher graduated from Harvard Law School, she learned that her mother had just lost her latest home to foreclosure.

Fisher’s mother could not understand, therefore, why her daughter turned down the financial security offered by private law firms to take what was then the highly unusual path of pursuing a career in public interest.

Now, reflecting on a 41-year career that began as an attorney in Manhattan’s housing court and included a 28-year tenure in New York’s court system, Fisher has no regrets about the path she chose. It took her from Harlem Legal Services, where she cut her teeth in the hectic housing court; to the National Conference of Black Lawyers, where she provided free legal services to Harlem-based community organizations; to the New York Attorney General’s Office, where she prosecuted fraudulent charities.

But her true calling proved to be the judiciary, which Fisher joined in 1989 as a housing judge. At the time, attorneys and judges who looked like Fisher, a black woman, were so uncommon that when she stood up one day to argue an important appellate case concerning city-owned housing, the judges on the panel mistook her for the tenant.

People want to be heard and treated with respect. If you do that in your courtroom, then you are serving the public interest.

Fisher flourished in housing court, where the legal issues were often dizzyingly complex, and the human impact both dire and immediate. “If you don’t have a roof over your head that’s decent and secure, the rest of your life falls apart,” she says.

After stints in various civil courts, however, Fisher finally found the true love of her life. In 1996, she became an administrative judge, and in 2009, became the deputy chief administrative judge for New York City courts as well as the director of the New York State Courts Access to Justice Program. She wore so many hats in those roles that when she finally retired in 2017 in order to join Hofstra University’s law school as the dean’s special assistant for social justice initiatives, four people were needed to replace her.

In her administrative role, Fisher could take a more systemic look at the problems that plagued unrepresented litigants and experiment with creative solutions to expand access to justice. In addition to mundane administrative duties such as ensuring that the lights stayed on in the courthouses, she took on bigger challenges. She instituted Lawyer-for-a-Day programs to provide unrepresented litigants with counsel, upgraded judicial forms to make them more accessible, and designed a program that would connect lawyers with social workers to more holistically address complex needs. Fisher even launched a mobile justice center, a 25-foot van that traversed the city to offer free legal services directly to neighborhoods that needed them. She ran poverty simulations and cultural tours for judges to assist them in understanding the unique issues faced by poor and minority litigants.

Having steadfastly pursued public interest initiatives for her entire career, Fisher has earned her fair share of recognitions. But among the most meaningful, and still displayed in her office, is the Gary Bellow Public Service Award, which Harvard Law awarded to her in 2006. She views the honor as “the ultimate recognition of and acceptance of the path that I chose, which is not the usual path.”

She particularly appreciated the recognition that judges are not merely neutral government employees, but also can be agents of change who can serve the public interest. According to Fisher, “the law is the law” and its application to facts must be decided neutrally. But how courtrooms are run, and whether litigants feel they have received a fair shot, amount to procedural justice that can be vital in serving the public. “People want to be heard and treated with respect,” she says. “If you do that in your courtroom, then you are serving the public interest.”