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Judicial Friends releases report on institutional racism in court system

September 11, 2020 David Brand
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An influential group of Black New York judges has released a 161-page report on institutional racism in the state court system, highlighting racial disparities in judicial leadership, detailing the impediments to equal justice for Black and Latino defendants and making recommendations for addressing pervasive biases.

The Judicial Friends Association submitted their report to the state court system’s Commission on Equal Justice in the Courts Aug. 31. The commission, led by former Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson, was formed to address systemic bias in the wake of nationwide demonstrations against police violence.

The Judicial Friends report outlines examples of systemic racism related to the appointment of judges and staff as well as the assignment of cases and parts. The report also examines treatment of Black and Latino court visitors, attorneys and litigants by court officers and the impact of implicit bias on the justice system.

“There will be uncomfortable, but necessary, truths” in the report, the organization writes in the introduction.

“It is not meant as a condemnation of every employee or administrator or supervisor,” they continue. “Rather, it will reveal the extent to which systemic racism is invasive and like any other cancer, it must be removed in order to ensure a fair and just system for the community.”

The 44-year-old organization, led by Manhattan Supreme Court Justice Erika Edwards, said it was “greatly concerned” with a lack of diversity among judges and court system leaders in New York State.

“To assess the extent to which racism affects the New York State Unified Court System, one must start at the top and ask, ‘are Black judges participating in the most powerful, policy making positions within OCA?’ The answer is a resounding NO,” the report states.

None of the executive judges in the Office of Court Administration are Black, the association writes. Just three Black judges hold statewide positions and the disparities continue throughout the judicial ranks, including the presence of just six Black judges on the 81-member Court of Claims appointed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo, they add.

The report highlights disparities at all levels of the criminal justice system, such as a jury selection process that strikes potential jurors based on their negative interactions with police officers or their support for the Black Lives Matter movement.

“We trust that our efforts to reveal the sources of these vital issues and our recommendations offering tangible solutions for lasting, maximum impact, will assist the Commission in fulfilling its mission to examine the existing policies, practices and initiatives and recommend revisions and improvements to combat racial bias and discrimination within the courts,” the Judicial Friends Association wrote in the report conclusion.

Office of Court Administration spokesperson Lucian Chalfen said Chief Judge Janet DiFiore and the state court system welcome the report.

“That is expressly why the Chief Judge sought to bring in Jeh Johnson to do a top to bottom review and have people feel comfortable and confident that their experiences, thoughts and feelings will be heard and treated seriously,” Chalfen said.

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