Letter From The President Of The New York County Lawyers' Association

2006-02-01 01:00

To The Readers Of The Metropolitan Corporate Counsel:

On December 13, 1,200 lawyers gathered at the New York County Lawyers' Association's 91st Annual Bar Dinner at the Waldorf Astoria to celebrate jurists and lawyers of color.Honorees included leading African-American, Hispanic and AsianAmerican lawyers from every segment of the profession.

One pivotal component of New York's judiciary, the Appellate Divisions, do not reflect the racial, ethnic and gender diversity of the citizens they serve. While lawyers of color and women are achieving an ever more prominent role in the profession, the all important Appellate Divisions are a notable exception.

Of the 15 justices sitting on the Appellate Division, First Department, which embraces Manhattan and the Bronx, there is only one African-American, one Hispanic and one Asian-American judge.And with the recent retirement of Justice Betty Weinberg Ellerin, there is only one woman. This contrasts starkly with the roughly equal percentage of men and women in those boroughs and the significant minority population - about 75 percent in the Bronx and 40 percent in Manhattan. In the Second Department, covering Brooklyn, Queens, Long Island and several upstate counties, out of the 22 justices, only one is African-American, one is Hispanic and, with the retirement of Justice Sondra Miller, only three are women.

While there is no basis to conclude that a judge of a particular background is inherently more qualified than another, a diverse judiciary serves two vital interests: it instills respect and confidence among those who are subject to its edicts and it provides an inspirational role model for all citizens. Further, the Appellate Divisions are courts of unique importance.The Court of Appeals, New York's highest court, is a court of limited jurisdiction that accepts a minuscule fraction of cases for review. Most frequently, the Appellate Divisions are the courts of last resort - the final word in most civil and criminal appeals.

Notwithstanding the central role of the Appellate Divisions, the selection process by which judges are appointed to those courts is subject to largely unfettered control by the Governor.The Governor is the sole appointing authority, with no role for either the electorate or the legislative branch and a screening process that affords the Governor broad latitude. Furthermore, the Governor is limited to selecting the Appellate Division justices from among the state's elected Supreme Court justices.This restriction is of questionable value because it excludes all other judges serving on the state's vast array of courts, as well as highly qualified practitioners and legal academics. It is ironic that New York State's nationally acclaimed Chief Judge, Judith S. Kaye, who was originally appointed to the Court of Appeals as a practitioner, would not have been eligible to serve on the Appellate Division.


Norman Reimer