2006-12-08 / Community

Senator Smith Holds Hearing On Judicial Diversity

Judicial and legal experts offered testimony today at a public hearing on judicial diversity- the first in a series of hearings called for by Senate Democratic Leader-elect Malcolm A. Smith and State Senators Neil Breslin and John Sampson, co-chairs.

Smith's first public hearing featured testimony from a varied group of experts, including judges, attorneys, legal scholars, good government groups, law enforcement officials, political party leaders, civil rights organizations and judicial reform advocates.

Senator Smith, who currently serves as the Ranking Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, noted that the State's judicial system "does not adequately reflect the gender, ethnic and geographic diversity of our state." He said a "broad and diverse judiciary would enhance public confidence in our justice system."

Several participants noted that Governor-elect Spitzer would have an opportunity to appoint three judges to the Court of Appeals within his first 18 months in office. However, a lack of diversity on the lower courts already reduces the pool of experiences minority judges from which appointments to the higher court are made.

"An important aspect of these hearings is to discuss not just the Court of Appeals, but our entire State Judicial Branch, including the Appellate Division, which is really the 'back bench' for selection to the highest court," Smith said. "We would have a diverse back bench for the top bench."

Fifteen years ago, Governor Mario Cuomo created the Task Force on Minority Representation on the Bench (aka the "Task Force on Judicial Diversity") which found that there was clear evidence of an extreme lack of diversity in the state's judiciary, and further found there was no shortage of well-qualified minority and women candidates to explain the lack of diversity.

According to 2001 figures published by the American Bar Association's Standing Committee on Judicial Independence, only 84 (or 14.6 percent) minority judges out of 574 authorized state-court judges in New York sat on the bench in trial and appellate courts in the state. Of these, 54 (or 9.4 percent) were African-Americans, 24 (4.2 percent) were Latina/o, 6 (1 percent) were Asian or Pacific Islander, and none were Native American.

Although these figures represent a slight improvement over the statistics reported by the Cuomo Task Force, the percentages of African-American, Latino, Asian and Native American judges in the state have not kept pace with increases in the state's minority populations.

Smith, who will become leader of the Senate Democrats on January 1, will use the testimony of the experts to create a "blueprint for Judicial Diversity" that could help develop a State Judiciary "that truly reflects the people it serves and protects." He said he would convene pubic hearings in the coming months to gather testimony from advocates and experts.

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