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.

Final arguments conclude in NAACP’s challenge to Alabama’s judicial elections

The slow-moving federal court challenge to Alabama’s method of electing its appellate judges reached another milestone on Wednesday, when the parties gave their final arguments in a case filed back in 2016.

The Alabama State Conference of the NAACP is arguing that the Alabama’s method of at-large voting for state appellate courts impermissibly dilutes the votes of African-American voters, in violation of the federal Voting Rights Act. As evidence, the plaintiffs point to the fact that no black candidate has ever been elected to the state’s civil or criminal appellate courts, and only two have been elected to the state supreme court. The state has countered that standard party politics, not race, provides the best explanation for the election outcomes.

A federal judge denied the state’s motion to dismiss the case, and held a bench trial last November. After a lengthy delay brought on by the state’s appeal to the Eleventh Circuit on the denial of the motion to dismiss, the trial court held oral arguments to conclude the bench trial this week.

There is no indication when the judge will issue his decision. But whatever his final ruling, this case is a nice example of how life tenure shields him from some of the inevitable political fallout that will result from any decision he makes. If only his counterparts on the state bench enjoyed that same freedom from political pressure. But as both sides in the case made clear on Wednesday, viewing judges as politicians seems to be par for the course in Alabama.

Judge to appoint special master to assist in remedy phase of Louisiana judicial election case

Almost five years ago, a local branch of the NAACP in Terrebonne Parish, Louisiana, sued state officials in federal court, arguing that the state’s “at-large” system for electing judges systematically disenfranchised minority voters. After a trial in 2017, the federal district court agreed with the plaintiffs that the existing election scheme was unconstitutional. But the parties could not agree on the appropriate remedy, so the judge has asked both sides to suggest candidates for a special master, who will assist the judge in crafting an appropriate remedy.

“The parties didn’t agree on a remedy and the Legislature didn’t pass a remedy, so now it’s the court’s obligation to come up with a remedy,” [NAACP attorney Leah] Aden said on Saturday. “The court isn’t an expert in drawing maps. Judge Dick wants to do everything by the book, so she’s going to hire someone who’s familiar with drawing maps to aid her as an expert to evaluate the maps that we put up and potentially draw their own map. This person is basically a technical expert.”

A federal judge gave the state Legislature the first opportunity to remedy Terrebonne’s voting system, but the only proposed bill during the 2018 session died in committee.

This has been a fascinating case for observing how one sovereign’s judiciary (the federal courts) addresses fundamental issues pertaining to another (a state court system). It will be equally interesting to see how the final resolution plays out.

New developments in lawsuits concerning judicial elections in Alabama and Arkansas

Two lawsuits involving judicial elections–one each in Alabama and Arkansas–were the subject of new developments this past week.

In Alabama, the NAACP and Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights filed a federal lawsuit alleging that the state’s method of electing state appellate judges discriminates against African-American voters. The lawsuit claims that the absence of black judges on any state appellate court is the result of discriminatory vote dilution tactics. The state moved to dismiss the case on the grounds of sovereign immunity, but U.S. District Judge W. Keith Watkins denied the motion to dismiss, and set the case for a bench trial. Attorneys for the state have now taken their case to the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals, asking that court to overturn Judge Watkins’s refusal to dismiss the case.

The Arkansas case involved a controversial attack ad against incumbent state judge Courtney Goodson, who was seeking reelection. The Judicial Crisis Network, a conservative group, had been running the ad on several stations in northwest Arkansas when a county judge barred its further broadcast in May. The corporate owner of a Little Rock television station appealed the injunction. But last week, the state court of appeals ruled that the issue was now moot, since Justice Goodson has won reelection, and the ad was no longer airing. The issue may be moot for now, but the larger issues–prior restraint of political speech, the influence of “dark money” in elections, and the wisdom of electing judges in any event–remain.