NY Courts To Address Racial Bias Following Review

By Xiumei Dong | October 15, 2020, 9:33 PM EDT

New York State Chief Judge Janet DiFiore said Thursday that the state courts will implement a set of recommendations proposed by a Paul Weiss Rifkind Wharton & Garrison LLP partner, who was picked by the justice in June to investigate the court's response to institutional racism.

Jeh Johnson, who led the U.S. Department of Homeland Security under the Obama administration, outlined his recommendations over a 100-page report released on Oct. 1. Johnson said his suggestions centered on operational issues that lie within the court system's authority, as instructed by Judge DiFiore.

"The recommendations put forth by Secretary Johnson offer a tangible framework for a court system that truly reflects the diversity and inclusiveness of our communities, ensures the fair administration of justice and promotes the public trust," Judge DiFiore said in a statement, adding that the report was an "extraordinarily thoughtful, comprehensive analysis of these critical issues."

Some of Johnson's suggestions include asking the courts' leadership to embrace a "zero tolerance" policy for racial bias, developing and mandating bias training for judges and nonjudicial employees, addressing juror bias, adopting a social media policy for court employees, and strengthening the court system's mechanisms for handling bias complaints.

In the report, Johnson said many of the criticisms they have gathered about court can be "traced to a high volume of cases and a shortage of time and resources to deal with them". He said he and his team conducted nearly 100 interviews, involving nearly 300 court and legal professionals, and found that the number one complaint was centered on "an under-resourced, over-burdened New York State court system, the dehumanizing effect it has on litigants, and the disparate impact of all this on people of color."

"Housing, Family, Civil and Criminal courts of New York City, in particular, continue to be faced with extremely high volumes of cases, fewer resources to hear those cases and aging facilities," Johnson said in the report, pointing out that an overwhelming majority of litigants in these courts are people of color.

"The sad picture that emerges is, in effect, a second-class system of justice for people of color in New York State," Johnson said.

Johnson also highlighted racial tensions and intolerance among court officers in the report, saying that many court officers have told them they felt disinclined to report incidents of bias, such as racial slurs by white court officers, for fear of being ostracized by their colleagues or facing adverse career consequences.

"This review comes at a particularly tense moment for race relations in America," his report said. "Black Americans watch an unrelenting parade of video images of their people's lives snuffed out like animals at the hunt, at the hands of law enforcement in this jurisdiction and beyond. They conclude, with considerable evidence to support it, that in the eyes of law enforcement their lives do not matter as much as those of whites. The very notion of equality under law is today cast in serious doubt."

In addition to vowing to adopt changes proposed in the report, Judge DiFiore has appointed Alphonso David, most recently the president of LGBTQ civil rights organization Human Rights Campaign, as an independent monitor to evaluate and report on the court system's implementation of the recommendations.

--Additional reporting by Reenat Sinay. Editing by Brian Baresch.

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