New York judge calls for reform to state bail law

Earlier this year, New York State’s poorly thought-out bail reform law formally went into effect. (New York City courts began implementing it even earlier under the directive of Mayor Bill de Blasio.) The law requires state judges to release criminal defendants without bail except in the most egregious cases. While the law was intended to address perverse effects of existing bail laws on minority communities, it backfired spectacularly from the very start. In December, a woman accused of an anti-Semitic attack on the streets of New York City was released even after admitting her deed; she was involved in another criminal incident less than 24 hours later (and eventually was charged with federal crimes for which bail is required). She was not alone: many stories have identified criminal defendants who were released without bail despite being charged with violent crimes; some of the defendants have even expressed their own surprise at being released. Both de Blasio and New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, who initially championed the legislation, have publicly announced that they have had second thoughts.

The law is deeply problematic because it denies state judges a role fundamental to their jobs: the discretion to determine the conditions under which a criminal defendant should be released. Now some judges are speaking out against it themselves. At a recent forum, Bronx Criminal Court Judge George Grasso called for immediate efforts to change the law:

Grasso, a former deputy police commissioner, acknowledged the deep racial and income disparities that informed the push to overhaul the bail law, but said state lawmakers should amend the measure to allow for judicial discretion in setting bail and remanding defendants considered dangerous.

“The scope of removal of judicial discretion on bail matters in this reform package is breathtaking,” Grasso said in prepared remarks. “New York State is the only state in the United States that does not let judges consider ‘dangerousness,’ but instead resorts to twisted logic.”

“We should stop the charade now,” he continued. “It is my opinion that without significant changes, the current legislation will not only be a missed opportunity for long overdue criminal justice reform, but also a significant threat to public safety.”

This is a noteworthy development. Judges typically do not speak publicly on the state of the law, even laws that directly affect the administration of courts and the justice system. Offering a personal opinion on the validity or effectiveness of a law opens a judge to charges of bias or partiality. So it takes a real crisis for judges to feel the need to speak out so publicly.

And Judge Grasso is right. Whatever its original intent, the new law ties the hands of the courts, makes New Yorkers less safe, and reduces public confidence in the criminal justice system.

Two states aim to reorganize court structure to promote efficiency and fairness

Separate stories this week show how two state governments are working to reconfigure their court systems in response to growing dockets and concerns about cost, efficiency, and fairness.

In Colorado, a bill to create a new judicial district passed through the House Judiciary Committee. The proposal would split rapidly growing Arapahoe County off from the rest of the 18th Judicial District in order to better (and more fairly) allocate resources among the four counties that currently comprise the district. Arapahoe County has seen a recent spike in criminal prosecutions and especially murder trials (a depressing fact for this former Coloradan), and the growing criminal docket led many to believe that placing it in its own new judicial district would be BBC a better use of resources. The bill has broad support. If passed, it would go into effect in 2025.

In New York, the court system itself is taking the initiative to improve its efficiency and administration. This article by Chief Administrative Judge Lawrence Marks points out that consolidating the state’s Byzantine court system (which currently has 11 different trial courts) would save litigants and the public hundreds of millions of dollars every year. As in Colorado, the proposal has strong support but would need legislative sign off.

These are nice examples of interbranch cooperation for the benefit of local residents and taxpayers. More like this, please.

Collins on Problem-Solving Courts

Erin Collins (Richmond) has posted a new article, The Problem of Problem-Solving Courts, which looks at the origins of problem-solving courts and questions whether they are really meeting their stated goals. (Problem-solving courts are criminal courts designed to address the unique needs of a specific group of offenders, like drug courts or veterans courts.)

Her conclusion (from the abstract) is quite interesting:

This Article … contends [that] problem-solving courts do effectively address a problem — it is just not the one we think. It argues that these courts revive a sense of purpose and authority for judges in an era marked by diminishing judicial power. Moreover, it demonstrates that the courts have developed and proliferated relatively free from objective oversight. Together, these new insights help explain why the problem-solving court model endures. They also reveal a new problem with the model itself — its entrenchment creates resistance to alternatives that might truly reform the system.

It’s an intriguing article that will cause me to think more carefully about the proliferation of problem-solving courts across the country.

Indiana judges involved in late-night White Castle shooting are reinstated

The three Indiana state judges whose late-night fight outside a White Castle restaurant last May led to two being shot and all being suspended will be back on the job in the coming weeks, the Louisville Courier-Journal reports.

Judges Bradley Jacobs and Sabrina Bell received 30-day suspensions in late November, and were reinstated in December 23. Judge Andrew Adams received a 60-day suspension, which will end on January 13. Adams and Jacobs were seriously hurt in the original altercation, which began when after Bell gave a lewd gesture to armed men in the White Castle parking lot in the wee hours of the morning.

Previous coverage here, here, here, and here.

Iowa courthouse break-ins were arranged by … the Iowa courts?

“This has been quite an odd case,” said one state senator.

Last month, two men were arrested for breaking into the courthouse in Dallas County, Iowa. The same men were charged with burglarizing the Polk County courthouse around the same time. Now it has come to light that they were hired by the state court administration in order to test courthouse security.

The men apparently broke into the Polk County courthouse after hours on one occasion, then had to break back in after they realized they had left some things behind. They were not caught until the third break-in in Dallas County. Last week, Iowa Chief Justice Mark Cady admitted that they had been hired by the court system itself, which had proceeded without notifying law enforcement or any other governmental branch.

Chief Justice Cady apologized for the snafu, and stated that the court system and the security company had “differences in interpretations” of the security company’s contract.

Indiana judge, shot in White Castle skirmish, set to return to the bench

Judge Bradley Jacobs, who presides in the Clark County (Ind.) Circuit Court, will return to the bench after spending three months recovering from a gunshot wound. Judge Jacobs and a colleague, Drew Adams, were shot outside a White Castle restaurant in Indianapolis in the wee hours of the morning on May 1. They were in town for a judicial conference.

Judge Adams, the gunman, and one other man have been charged in the incident. Judge Adams has since been suspended from the bench for his role in the fight. Judge Jacobs was not charged.

Another Brazilian court will hide its judges’ identities to protect them

The Rio de Janiero State Court in Brazil will begin prosecuting corruption cases through special “faceless” courts designed to hide the identity of the presiding judges. It is the seventh Brazilian state to implement such a system. The change is coming after more than twenty judges received police protection from death threats by gangs and organized crime.

Under the new system, three judges will rotate every sixty days and all decisions will be signed by the principal judge. Variations of the system were used to protect judges in Colombia in the 1990s.

This is obviously an extreme development, and the safety of the judiciary must be taken seriously. But it comes at a serious cost — the accused will not be able to know the identity of, the very person who will be condemning them to prison (or worse). It’s a dark moment for everyone when due process must be diluted for the sake of judicial safety.

Judge indicted in White Castle scuffle that led to his own shooting

In early May, a thoroughly bizarre and tragic story came out of Indianapolis. Two Indiana state judges, in town for a statewide judicial conference, had been shot outside a White Castle restaurant in the wee hours of the morning. Both men survived the shooting, and police concluded early on that they had not been targeted because they were judges, but the incident left the entire state judiciary shaken.

Now another strange turn: one of the injured judges, Andrew Adams, has been indicted by a grand jury for his role in the incident. He faces seven counts of low-level felony and misdemeanor charges.

The prosecutor has been very careful to stress the complicated nature of the investigation, which involved two grand juries and everyone claiming self defense. In the meantime, the Indiana Supreme Court has suspended Adams without pay, pending the outcome of the criminal charges and any related disciplinary proceeding.

I did not post about the shooting when it happened because the facts seemed so uncertain. But moving forward, the story certainly bears watching.

Minnesota broadcasts criminal sentencings … and the world doesn’t end

One of the main concerns expressed by lawyers and judges about courtroom cameras is that they will lead to grandstanding and obnoxious courtroom behavior. But the experience in Minnesota state courts suggests that these concerns are overblown. Using a bit of a loophole in the law — sentencing proceedings do not require assent from the parties — more media are gaining camera access to high-profile sentencings. The results have been mostly positive.

There are ample reasons to want to protect the privacy of victims, jurors, and witnesses during trial. But there are also ample reasons to make the open forum of the courtroom truly open to everyone. Video access of court proceedings is assuredly compatible with safety, due process, and substantial justice.

Former Chief Justice of South Korea is indicted

Yang Sung-tae, the Chief Justice of South Korea from 2011 to 2017, has been indicted on a string of charges relating to abuse of power and dereliction of duty while in office. The charges include influencing politically significant trials under his watch, as well as punishing other justices who were critical of his actions.

From the Korea Herald:

One of the high-profile cases Yang is suspected of having influenced was a damages suit filed by Korean victims forced to work for Japanese companies during Japan’s 1910-45 occupation of the Korean Peninsula.

Yang is suspected of having ordered senior officials at the NCA, the top court’s administrative body, to find ways to delay court proceedings for the case, mindful of the Park administration’s wishes to mend ties with Japan.

On Yang’s watch, the Supreme Court also allegedly collected inside intelligence from the Constitutional Court to keep it in check, covered up irregularities involving judges and interfered with the trial of Won Sei-hoon, a former spy chief accused of leading an online campaign to help then-presidential candidate Park Geun-hye win the 2012 election.

Yang has denied the accusations.

At least 100 other judges and legislators are also under investigation. Stay tuned.