Despite the critical importance of a strong and independent judiciary, it’s too often that court reform is ignored by public officials and civic leaders. Earlier this week – at the Conference on Judicial Selection Reform hosted by the Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone – I had the opportunity to use my perspective as Chair of The Fund for Modern Courts to speak on the importance of simplifying New York’s antiquated court system.
The conference began with remarks by Congressman Jerry Nadler, Chair of the House Judiciary Committee, and former Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson – who recently issued a report on racism and bias in the state court system. Secretary Johnson referred to the current court structure as “inexplicable,” and described how certain courts, such as the family and criminal courts, are under-resourced and over-burdened. He furthered explained how, in New York, over time there has developed a “second class system of justice for people of color.”
Following the keynote speakers, two panel discussions addressed the history of the judicial selection in New York, while also offering reform proposals. Former President of the New York State Bar Association Steve Younger provided background on New York’s court system by explaining how the 11 separate and distinct trial courts comprise a patchwork of varying limitations on jurisdiction. He examined the different terms of office for judges and a host of contrasting judicial selection methods, including how some judges in New York are elected, others are appointed, and still others are appointed from a defined pool of candidates selected by commissions.
One of the panelists, Assemblymember Robert Carroll, discussed a constitutional amendment he recently proposed that would empower panels to select judges which, in his view, would lead to a more thoughtful, skills-based approach to judicial selection. There was a consensus among panelists that too often judicial elections fail to provide a meaningful choice for voters. It is common for judges to run unopposed after being selected by political party leaders, and, even where there is choice, it is difficult for voters to assess the quality of judicial candidates in these “low information” races.
During my panel, I had the privilege of sharing the virtual stage with John Feerick, former Dean of Fordham Law School, and Alicia Bannon, Managing Director of the Brennan Center’s Democracy Program. Dean Feerick detailed important reform efforts he has spearheaded, while Ms. Bannon addressed the importance of greater diversity on the bench. I presented the Chief Judge’s proposed constitutional amendment that would consolidate the court system from 11 trial courts to three. Among the various compelling arguments in favor of reform, I emphasized the importance of having a system where resources are allowed to be allocated where they are most needed. In addition, my hope is that through reform wasteful, parallel proceedings can be minimized.
The three of us addressed the importance of informing and engaging the public on these compelling, common sense reform issues in order to overcome resistance from those who may have personal interests in maintaining the status quo. My biggest takeaway is that it’s important to remember that court reform is not an academic issue, but instead is one which affects the rights, liberties, health and safety of real people.