The Senate Minority Holds Public Hearing On Judicial Diversity

 

Smith’s first public hearing featured testimony from a varied group of experts, including judges, attorneys, legal scholars, good government groups, law enforcement officials, political party leaders, civil rights organizations and judicial reform advocates.

Among those offering testimony were: The Honorable Ann Pfau, First Deputy Chief Administrative Assistant of the New York State Office of Court Administration; former State Sen. John R. Dunne, vice-chair of the Committee for Modern Courts; John E. Higgins, Capital District Black and Hispanic Bar Association President, Kathryn Grant-Madigan, president-elect of the New York State Bar Association; and Albany Law School Professor and criminal defense attorney Laurie Shanks.

Senator Smith, who currently serves as the Ranking Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, noted that the State’s judicial system “does not adequately reflect the gender, ethnic and geographic diversity of our state.” He said a “broad and diverse judiciary would enhance public confidence in our justice system.”

Breslin, who serves with Smith on the Senate’s Judiciary Committee, pointed out that the State’s 55 Appellate Court judges include only nine women, two African Americans and two Hispanic members. The State’s highest Court, he said, also lacks diversity. “The seven judges on the Court of Appeals include just one Hispanic member and no African Americans,” Breslin said. “Our judiciary can only benefit from a diverse and varied viewpoint,” Breslin said. “It should not be dominated by any one ethnic, gender or racial group.”

New York to downstate mid-level appeals courts, far more aggressively than any other governor since the court’s creation in 1896.”

Several participants noted that Governor-elect Spitzer would have an opportunity to appoint three judges to the Court of Appeals within his first 18 months in office. However, a lack of diversity on the lower courts already reduces the pool of experienced minority judges from which appointments to the higher court are made.

“An important aspect of these hearings is to discuss not just the Court of Appeals, but our entire State Judicial Branch, including the Appellate Division, which is really the ‘back bench’ for selection to the highest Court,” Smith continued. “We should have a diverse back bench for the top bench.”

Albany City Court Judge Helena Heath-Roland, who is also a member of the Women's Bar Association of the State of New York (WBASNY), said “WBASNY’s mission is to advance the status of women in the legal profession and society, and to promote the fair and equal administration of justice. We believe that diversity on the bench gives credibility to the notion of, and is an essential element for, ensuring credibility, equality and fairness in our judicial system. In order to promote diversity on the bench our Association has, on both the statewide level and through its local chapters, taken an active role in developing programs specifically designed to advance many qualified women to the bench.”

Kathryn Grant Madigan, president-elect of The New York State Bar Association, said “Increasing the number of minorities on the bench would cultivate public confidence in the judiciary which, in turn, would strengthen the independence of the courts. Moreover, a diverse judiciary would result in judicial decisions that reflect insight and experience as varied as New
York’s citizenry. For the public to have trust and confidence in the fairness of the judiciary, it is imperative that the members of the judiciary reflect New York State’s diverse population.”

Fifteen years ago, Governor Mario Cuomo created the Task Force on Minority Representation on the Bench (a/k/a the “Task Force on Judicial Diversity”) which found that there was clear evidence of an extreme lack of diversity in the state’s judiciary, and further found there was no shortage of well-qualified minority and women candidates to explain the lack of diversity.

According to 2001 figures published by the American Bar Association’s Standing Committee on Judicial Independence, only 84 (or 14.6 percent) minority judges out of 574 authorized state-court judges in New York sat on the bench in trial and appellate courts in the state. Of these, 54 (or 9.4 percent) were African-American, 24 (4.2 percent) were Latina/o, 6 (1 percent) were Asian or Pacific Islanders, and none was Native American.

Although these figures represent a slight improvement over the statistics reported by the Cuomo Task Force, the percentages of African American, Latino, Asian and Native American judges in the state have not kept pace with increases in the state’s minority populations.

Smith, who will become leader of the Senate Democrats on January 1, will use the testimony of the experts to create a “Blueprint for Judicial Diversity” that could help develop a State Judiciary “that truly reflects the people it serves and protects.” He said he would convene public hearings in the coming months to gather testimony from advocates and experts.