Tonight, we celebrated the career of Valerie Raine, who helped establish the Brooklyn Treatment Court back in the 1990s. Val then went on to be a key force spreading drug courts across the state and ensuring that they hit the highest possible standards of excellence. Val is retiring after 20 years at the Center for Court Innovation.
Val first crossed my radar screen in 1996. Back then, the New York Times ran an article about the planning of the Brooklyn Treatment Court entitled “Drug Court Seeks to End Revolving Door Justice.” The piece talked about how great the Treatment Court was going to be and featured quotes from Tim Murray and JoAnn Ferdinand and John Feinblatt extolling the virtues of this new project. The only negative quote was from Val, then at the Legal Aid Society.
Not long after that, for reasons that are still a little unclear to me, Val decided to join the Center for Court Innovation to lead the very project that she had just publicly criticized to millions of readers. Nothing I had ever seen in my professional life to that point prepared me for the Valerie Raine experience. She was an enormous personality. This, combined with the stress that always accompanies a high-profile start-up, made for some dramatic moments.
I mostly sat on the sideline and watched. Little did I know that I would become Val’s boss, at least nominally, a few years later. It didn’t seem like a marriage that was destined for success. From Val’s perspective, I brought precious little to the table – not much knowledge of the justice system, not much management experience, and not much personality.
In search of advice, I went to my friend Eric Lee who told me that Val’s bark was worse than her bite. I think I found that notion reassuring at the time. I also found it not to be true. Over the years, I have felt Val’s bark and her bite, and I can tell you that both are pretty bad. But I will say this: in my experience, when Val bites, it is always for good reason. Val is someone with a keen sense of justice and the willingness and the capacity to fight on behalf of the underdog.
In truth, lots of ex-public defenders are righteous warriors for justice. What makes Val special in my estimation is something that I have always attributed to her background as an actress. For me, she has the soul of an artist. She brings empathy and creativity and humor and improvisation to her work. She’s an amazing storyteller and she uses that gift to make friends and win over enemies.
That’s why Val was been able to thrive over the course of her career at Legal Aid, the Center for Court Innovation, and the Office of Court Administration. And that’s why she has been able to shift the entire landscape of justice in New York. Because, make no mistake, that's what drug courts have done over the past 20 years. And there simply would not have been a drug court movement in New York, and certainly not a sustained one, without Val.
It was an enormous honor to work with Val over the past couple of decades. I will miss her. And I know our field will too.