The Need For Reform - Times Union News
- J.A.I.L. News Journal
Los Angeles, California March 13, 2002The below news article appeared in the New York Times Union newspaper, and centers around our Lt. JAILer-In-Chief for the State of New York, Ron Loeber.More and more, various media sources are picking up on our message that judges pretty much the ball field to themselves when it comes to accountability. J.A.I.L. is on the leading edge of shifting general public opinion regarding judges. -Ron BransonThe need for reformTimes Union Newspaper 2/7/02
New York should have a more open process for disciplining judges
If a police officer violates your civil rights, you can sue both the officer and the municipality for which he or she works. If a prosecutor withholds exculpatory evidence from the defense, you have some recourse. You can sue for malicious prosecution. But what if a judge is the one who tramples on your rights and sends you off to jail? In that case, your damage options are trumped by judicial immunity.
And while the judge might be investigated by the state Commission on Judicial Conduct, he or she can make the case go away simply by walking away from the bench. That's what happened last June, when Hoosick Falls Town Justice Lester Goodermote resigned with seven months still left in his four-year term. The commission had been looking into a complaint by Barry Wilt of Hoosick Falls, who had claimed false arrest, lack of due process, malicious prosecution and slander. A hearing had been scheduled for May 11, but the commission "called me and said the matter was canceled because the justice resigned,'' Mr. Wilt told our reporter at the time.
The judge may have resigned because of an illness in the family, town officials said at the time. But what was the hearing to explore? There's no way the public can know that answer. The commission is prohibited from disclosing details about the complaint, and the hearings it holds are not open to the public.
The special treatment accorded judges has prompted Ron Loeber of Altamont to push hard for reforms, including a special grand jury that would indict and prosecute judges for miscarriages of justice. Mr. Loeber, who was jailed by state Supreme Court Justice Joseph Teresi over a real estate dispute, is a prime mover, along with Bill Gage of Washington County of a group called Jail 4 Judges.
But a grand jury would, in effect, criminalize how a judge conducts himself in court, a clearly unwarranted approach. Judicial misconduct -- abuse of power, ethical conflicts and courtroom demeanor -- can be appropriately addressed with civil penalties such as those meted out by the commission. The question, though, is whether those penalties should be strengthened. To judge by the frequency of mild discipline, even in the face of repeated violations, suggests there is need for reform.
One possibility: Tort reform would lift the shield of judicial immunity. That immunity, incidentally, was granted with the best of intentions. It was designed to shield judges from frivolous litigation by those seeking revenge for a decision that did not go their way. But it has turned into a blanket of protection for outrageous conduct.
The first step toward any reform, however, must be to end the secrecy that now surrounds the commission's investigations. Thirty-five other states already mandate open hearings for judges facing misconduct charges. But New York continues to shut the public out of proceedings that are clearly the public's business.
The commission itself endorses the concept of open hearings, as does Governor Pataki and Chief Judge Judith Kaye. Indeed, ever since 1996, Sen. James Lack, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, has been trying to have such a reform enacted into law. But, in a sense, the issue goes all the way back to 1978, and has been championed at different times by either the Senate or the Assembly, depending on whose party had captured the governorship. And, with regularity, the open hearings bill became a political football as legislators from both parties tacked on other items to the bill that made it unacceptable to the opposition. The result has been gridlock.
This time around, the Lack bill remains stalled because some object to two major provisions. One is that it would raise the standard of proof from what is essentially a civil case standard -- namely, the preponderance of the evidence -- to something closer to the standard of criminal cases, where guilt would be determined by "clear and convincing evidence.'' A second objection centers around the bill's imposition of a four-year statute of limitations in most cases.
But state lawmakers have had five years to address these concerns and hammer out a compromise. For example, if it is possible to have separate standards of proof for civil and criminal matters, then why not adopt such an approach for charges against judges?
Why not tie the standard of proof to the circumstances of the case at hand -- a high one for serious matters, a lesser one for less serious offenses? As for a four-year statute of limitations, that should either be extended greatly or abandoned outright. A four-year limit would permit too many cases to languish and die in the system.
Even though the commission is concerned about both of these aspects of the Lack bill, it nonetheless believes that passage of the proposed legislation would be a major step forward.
An end to secrecy and leniency, plus an emphasis on accountability -- that's the formula for reform.
Justice -- equal justice -- demands no less.
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