Heaven Can Wait

The pressures to select a jury, to move a case to trial, have become somewhat overwhelming in New York, following the exposes of long, inexplicable delays.  The Office of Court Administration has “standards and practices,” which are used to smack judges whose numbers aren’t where the newspapers think they should be. For some judges, the smack is well deserved.

For others, particularly those who have stood up to power by ruling against the local political structure and pissing off a lot of people, standards and practices is a sword hanging over their head, an excuse to sacrifice them on the altar of regularity.

Queens Supreme Court Judge Joel Blumenfeld stood firm when he ruled against the Queens District Attorney’s practice of eliciting confessions from defendants after arrest but before they got to see their lawyer.  This put a target on his back. Yet, the push to be purer than Caesar’s wife, or in this case, push jury selection forward to avoid the appearance of being a laggard, can blind an empathetic judge to an otherwise critical decision.  That’s what appears to have happened in Queens Supreme. Via Kevin Underhill:

According to the reports (New York Post, UPIABC7), Nyima Dorjee didn’t actually say “I am having a heart attack,” he just said he was having chest pains and difficulty breathing. Sure, it turned out he was having a heart attack, but he could have been more clear about it. Also, the judge allegedly said “they can wait,” after a court officer relayed this information, which at least suggests the judge didn’t realize there was a specific medical emergency. He might have thought “the jury pool” as a whole was griping, as jurors will understandably do.

So the judge’s alleged response, “There’s a few more minutes left [of voir dire]. They can wait,” might not have been deliberate disregard of a serious medical issue.

The problem with a medical emergency happening before one’s eyes is that it’s not necessarily clear at the moment that it’s an emergency, rather than, not an emergency.  Judges aren’t doctors, and so the symptoms of a heart attack and, say, indigestion or anxiety, aren’t immediately clear.

Mind you, it would have been prudent to assume that chest pains and difficulty breathing were serious, a potential heart attack, rather than something that could wait for the completion of voir dire.  If not because it’s the wiser choice, then because no judge wants a potential juror dead in the box.  That’s frowned upon until after the trial starts.

The Post quoted an anonymous “witness” for the above statements, and it also talked to Dorjee. According to its account, the judge ignored the court officer’s concern and said the prosecutor could go ahead and finish his last few questions. “The officers removed the juror anyway, and called for help. Dorjee was rushed to Jamaica Hospital, where doctors determined he was having a heart attack.” Dorjee said he didn’t hear the judge’s remarks, but of course he was busy at the time trying not to die. We don’t know who the witness was, and the judge himself declined to comment.

To their credit, the court officers chose to address the emergency happening in the courtroom rather than stand by as a juror had a heart attack.  This reflects an often unconsidered aspect of the relationship between court staff and judge, where each has a job and the authority to do it.  While the judge is sorta “god” in his courtroom, the court officers are in control when an emergency happens, whether the threat of violence or, as here, a medical emergency.

It’s not a law thing, and so the judge doesn’t get to rule nunc pro tunc that the juror is fine and isn’t having a heart attack.  For that matter, judges lack the power to resurrect dead people. Even appellate judges, which will no doubt come as a surprise to many.

But even as the officers involved deserve praise for putting the welfare of the juror ahead of the standards and practices demanded by Court Administration, the union then had to take a pot shot and diminish their good deed.

Interestingly, the reports also quote the president of the New York State Supreme Court Officers Association, who called the judge’s conduct “egregious” and added, “I’m disturbed by the continued extreme ignorance of the court administration for the public’s safety.”

Nothing like seizing the opportunity to slam a judge who refuses to play along with the evisceration of constitutional rights, not to mention the Court Administration to gain a leg up for the next collective bargaining session.

Did Judge Blumenfeld make the wrong call here? It certainly looks that way, and the officers deserve praise for doing their job well. But for those who wonder what becomes of judges bold enough to stand up for the Constitution in the face of enormous pressure to “get along,” be careful of how they can be attacked from the back-end.

While the judge may have been wrong here, that’s why they have court officers to take charge when a medical emergency occurs in the courtroom. Judges aren’t perfect, and they certainly aren’t healthcare professionals equipped to diagnose the complaints of jurors while the pressure is on to do their job of keeping the system moving forward.

But before anyone thinks about trading in Judge Blumenfeld for someone more attuned to the juror’s health, consider that he was the only judge in Queens sufficiently attuned to the constitutional rights of defendants to put a stop to the district attorney’s outrageous violation of defendant’s right to remain silent.  One isn’t in his wheelhouse. The other was, and he did what we would all hope a judge would do.

3 comments on “Heaven Can Wait

  1. Alex Bunin

    As a displaced New Yorker, I empathize with the judge’s lack of empathy. New Yorkers complain a lot. Double that for Queens. Absent a full Redd Foxx imitation — clutching one’s heart and groaning loudly — it can be difficult to discern a medical condition from the sounds of a normal docket call.

    1. SHG Post author

      I hate to call it a lack of empathy, when your point, that there’s a lot of pissing and moaning coming out of New Yorkers, is true. It can be very hard to tell the serious from the marlarky.

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