The Judicial Friends Association (The Association) was established in 1976 by a group of African-American Judges within the State of New York seeking the fair and just treatment of minority Judges, staff and attorneys. We are the oldest established organization committed to racial equality in the field of law for racial and language minorities in the State of New York. We serve to educate and advocate on behalf of the Judiciary, judicial and non-judicial Court staff, and attorneys on issues affecting the Court, in particular issues affecting racial and language minorities.

The Association recognizes the Office of Court Administration’s (OCA) efforts to improve the administration of justice through the Excellence Initiative and other court improvements. However, we are compelled to oppose OCA’s Court Restructuring Proposal for the reasons set forth herein and we urge its reconsideration.

A Historically Ineffective Strategy

The Association is greatly alarmed that although OCA proffers that the proposed plan will increase racial diversity, in reality, the plan threatens to reverse years of progress made by African-Americans and other minorities to eliminate bias through the right to vote, as well as decreases racial diversity among Supreme Court Justices. Historically, racial minorities have been underrepresented in Judicial appointments. The addition of appointed Judges to the Supreme Court who do not reflect racial diversity, disproportionately decreases the African-American, Latino, and Asian-American representation on the Supreme Court Bench. This retrogressively diminishes the electoral clout of minority voters and dilutes the racial diversity amongst Justices of the Supreme Court. Judicial racial diversity is one way to increase public confidence in the judiciary and the courts, provide decision-making power to formerly disenfranchised populations, and ensure equal justice for all.

Changes To NYC Family Court, Court of Claims, Surrogate Court, and County Court

For example, the crux of the proposed changes is purportedly to enhance efficiency by consolidating various courts. OCA boasts that by virtue of the transfer of judges from the Court of Claims, Surrogate Court, NYC Family Court and County Court, And the pool of Supreme Court Justices from which the Governor may designate Justices to the Appellate Divisions will be considerably expanded@ (see Key Provisions of the Chief Judge’s Court Consolidation Proposal). Implicit in this claim is that the larger the pool, the greater the potential for diversity within the Appellate Division. Yet this is a false premise. Indeed, the OCA statistics as of September 2018 reflect that African-American Justices constituted about 17.2% of all Supreme Court Justices. This percentage would decrease significantly with the proposed consolidation. Particularly, given the abysmal number of African-American judicial appointments historically to the Court of Claims, appointed to the Family Court within New York City and elected to courts outside of New York City, it should not be surprising that this plan would dilute the percentage of African-American Justices eligible for appointment to the Appellate Division. In fact, if OCA has a serious interest in ensuring greater diversity, it might start by addressing the historical lack of diversity in the various judicial screening committees or panels intrinsic to the appointment process.

An Undemocratic Process

Another troubling aspect of the proposed plan is that it gives OCA the unrestrained power to place or transfer Justices, elected by voters from within their electoral districts, to any district within the State of New York. This unlawfully preempts the fundamental right of voters to elect a particular Justice to represent their community in their district. It is untenable that an administrative body has the discretion to move Justices around the Court system without regard for the intent of the voters.

The idea of an independent Judiciary serves as the underpinning for the creation of the New York State Supreme Court system, with Justices elected by the people of the State of New York from Judicial districts statewide to preside over trials commenced within that district. The proposed plan provides for the consolidation of the Supreme Court, whose Justices are elected, with Courts of lesser jurisdiction, whose Judges are appointed by the Governor or Mayor, creating the opportunity for the Executive Branch to exert its influence on the Judiciary through direct appointments to the Bench.

We believe this initiative to be a first step in a path toward a system where Judges are no longer elected by their constituents, but rather are appointed by the Executive Branch. In this regard, the plan has the design and effect of eliminating the Constitutional separation of powers between the branches of government and the system of checks and balances intended to prevent the concentration of power in one branch of government at the expense of another.

We urge OCA to abandon its efforts to overhaul the current Court structure with a proposal that has devastating consequences for racial equality and disturbs the Constitutional foundation for an independent Judiciary.

Thank you for your consideration.

The Judicial Friends Association