At a public hearing held last week by the Senate Minority Conference, State Senator Neil D. Breslin (D-Albany) said New York must do more to promote widespread diversity on all levels of the State’s judicial system, including the Court of Appeals, the State’s highest court.
"Our judiciary can only benefit from a diverse and varied viewpoint," said Senator Breslin, who convened the first of a series of public hearings on judicial reform along with Senate Democratic Leader-elect Malcolm A. Smith and State Senator John Sampson (D-Brooklyn). "Greater gender, ethnic and geographic diversity in the courts is crucial to enhancing public confidence in our justice system."
Senator Breslin, who serves on the Senate 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 lacks diversity as well. "The seven judges on the Court of Appeals include just one Hispanic member and no African Americans," Senator Breslin said.
A varied group of judicial and legal experts offered testimony at last week’s hearing, including judges, attorneys, civil rights organizations, good government groups, law enforcement officials, political party leaders, legal scholars, and judicial reform advocates.
Among those presenting testimony were: The Honorable Ann Pfau, First Deputy Chief Administrative Assistant of the New York State Office of Court Administration; former State Senator 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.
Several participants noted that Governor-elect Eliot Spitzer will have an opportunity to promote racial and ethnic balance in the judiciary when he appoints three judges to the Court of Appeals within his first 18 months in office.
"However, a lack of diversity on the state’s lower courts, the traditional pipeline to the Court of Appeals, limits the pool of experienced minority judges from which appointments to the higher courts are made," Senator Breslin said. "We also need greater diversity in the appellate division, which serves as the ‘back bench’ for selection to the highest court."
According to Albany Law School professor Laurie Shanks, a judiciary that does not reflect those who come before it risks losing credibility. "Each member of society must believe that the interpretation and enforcement is done in a manner that is fair to all. Such a belief is difficult, if not impossible, when the judiciary does not reflect the racial, gender and ethnic diversity of the society," Shanks said.
Senator Breslin concluded, "It’s abundantly clear that our judiciary lacks diversity, just as we know there is no shortage of well-qualified minority and women judicial candidates. As we move forward, we have an opportunity to bring about much-needed, meaningful judicial reform. Our courtrooms need to reflect the rich, cultural diversity of New York."