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New York Needs Judiciary System Overhaul, Says Former Homeland Security Secretary

Former Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson testifies at a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing on election security on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, March 21, 2018.
Andrew Harnik
Associated Press
Former Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson testifies at a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing on election security on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, March 21, 2018.

Former Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson joined Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone on Tuesday for a roundtable discussion for how to help make the judicial system in New York more diverse and less political. The state hired Johnson to review racial equity in the judicial system.

Johnson found that attorneys of color, like him, are frequently misidentified in the courtroom.

“Attorneys of color, even in the year 2021, when they walk into the courtroom are being mistaken for someone they are not,” Johnson said. “We heard over and over again lawyers of color being mistaken for the criminal defendant, the court officer, the translator, someone other than who they are.”

Johnson also found defendants of color were disadvantaged due to the immense number of cases courts are burdened with.

“Multiple interviewees from all perspectives, still complain about an under-resourced, overburdened New York State court system, and the dehumanizing effect it has on litigants and the disparate impact of all of this has on people of color,” Johnson said. “Housing, family, civil and criminal courts of New York City, in particular, continue to be faced with extremely high volumes of cases, fewer resources to hear those cases and ageing facilities.”

He recommends a zero-tolerance policy for discrimination in the court system and mandatory bias training for both employees and jurors. To make the courtroom easier to navigate, he called for an improved translation system and hiring courthouse greeters to make the process less intimidating for people.

Bellone hosted a day-long forum, which was moderated by the Suffolk County League of Women Voters, following a letter he sent last fall to the state’s chief administrative judge to call for reforms in judicial selection in the state. New York is one of few states that allow judicial candidates to run for office in elections.

The Democrat wants to end cross-endorsements that have allowed judges to run on multiple party ballot lines. He said the ballot leaves “only one candidate to choose from instead of choosing among the most qualified candidates to serve on the judiciary.”

That creates a “broken” system, Bellone said. He said too often the advice people give to those who want to become judges is to become politically involved.

“If you're being completely candid with them, you'd be compelled to tell them that to achieve their dream, they need to start attending political fundraisers to develop close relationships with party officials, and that it would help to provide free legal services to the party,” Bellone said.

Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-NY), chair of the House Judiciary Committee, said his chamber has pushed for Supreme Court justices to have to follow set ethical guidelines.

“We also heard from witnesses about the ethical standards that should govern the judiciary, including the Supreme Court, which currently operates without a formal code of conduct,” Nadler said.

Nadler said the number of federal and state judges should be increased with diverse candidates to make caseloads easier to manage.

“There are ways in which the federal judiciary of 2021 looks uncomfortably similar to the federal judiciary of 1921,” Nadler said. “Despite all our progress, today's federal judges remain, for instance, overwhelmingly male, white former prosecutors or corporate lawyers, who went to a handful of law schools.”

He also wants to improve transparency in the federal court system. Nadler said court cases should be broadcasted live online, even after pandemic restrictions end. He also advocates for public records to be more affordable and easier to access. Currently, the public must use the PACER system to access court records. The system is costly, and funds generated are not used to maintain the record system, which Nadler said is outdated.

Nadler said the lack of representation in the judicial system can have a detrimental effect on defendants of color.

"For example, Americans are many times more likely to appear in bankruptcy court than in any other federal court,” he said. “But bankruptcy judges are the least racially and ethnically diverse judges in the entire federal judiciary.”

Leah is a former intern with WSHU Public Radio.