New York’s Chief Judge, Janet DiFiore, called for a study to be done to ascertain the extent of racial bias in the court system.
DiFiore said in June that her request for the report was spurred by the killing of George Floyd and came two days after a Brooklyn court officer allegedly posted a racist illustration depicting President Obama with a noose around his neck, which Johnson says “peeled the lid off of long-simmering racial tensions.”
In 1991, a Minorities Commission appointed by then-Chief Judge Wachtler declared
“there are two justice systems at work in the courts of New York State, one for Whites, and
a very different one for minorities and the poor.”
What was found in the report, issued in 1992, expresses something that few involved in the legal system didn’t already know.
Some of our courts .. have lost the confidence of the poor…. The belief is pervasive among ghetto residents that lower courts in our urban communities dispense ‘assembly line’ justice; that from arrest to sentencing the poor and uneducated are denied equal justice with the affluent, that procedures such as bail and fines have been perverted to perpetuate class inequities. We have found that the apparatus of justice in some areas has itself become a focus for distrust and hostility. Too often the courts have operated to aggravate rather than relieve the tensions that ignite and fire disorders. This statement aptly captures the extent of minority dissatisfaction with the courts of New York State. Many minorities perceive that the courts do not treat them fairly.
Back then, the vast majority of arrests and, consequently defendants, came from black and Hispanic neighborhoods, still called ghettos because accurate descriptions were still allowed in 1992, and they were treated like dirt. The courts “suffered” these criminals, and they were deemed criminals by pretty much everyone without much reservation because it was in the midst of the crack epidemic, murder was rampant, and nobody was feeling particularly kindly toward anyone living in the South Bronx or above 125th Street.
Black judges would routinely reply when a case was called and a defendant wasn’t present that it was okay, since they were on “CP” time. There was a judge in Brooklyn Supreme Court who used to put on his best Amos and Andy voice when addressing black defendants. In Part 72 in Manhattan, Justice Leslie Crocker Snyder responded, when I accused her of setting unmakeable bail on my client because he was Hispanic, that she would never do such a thing unless she had no other reason to hold him.
Cases were referred to as “garden variety,” even by the lawyers charged with defending the accused, who didn’t work very hard. Legal Aid lawyers rushed in and out, standing next to black people they didn’t know, copping pleas for their colleagues doing the same in other courtrooms for other colleagues. They weren’t people, but interchangeable widgets. The 18b lawyers were no better, and often worse. The judges cared only about one thing, clearing their calendars and moving cases out.
But why two systems of justice? Because people who could afford good lawyers, and were fortunate enough to retain good lawyers, got a fight. Not that they won all the time, but they at least had a fighting chance. Notably, the defendants who fought weren’t necessarily white people, but mostly “hard-working” black and Hispanic drug dealers because they had the money to fight, knew who the good lawyers were and were willing to pay for it as a cost of doing business. Poor people, on the other hand, were cattle, herded in and out as quickly as possible to keep the wheels of the system grinding. Most of them were black and Hispanic. They got screwed.
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. Over and over, we heard about the “dehumanizing” and “demeaning cattle-call culture” in these high-volume courts. At the same time, the overwhelming majority of the civil or criminal litigants in the Housing, Family, Civil and Criminal courts in New York City 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.
Former Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson could have just said “not much” in more gentle language, but that wasn’t what he was charged to find. Except this isn’t true. The volume of cases is a fraction of what it was in the ’90s. Serious crime is way down. Yet the “demeaning cattle-call culture” hasn’t changed, although it’s mostly about petty offenses, the “quality of life” crap that was justified under “broken windows” in the parts of the city that used to be called “ghettos,” and is now used to justify maintenance of the huge army of cops and prosecutors who remained even though they didn’t have all that much work to do.
On the other hand, Johnson found court officers to have much the same racist culture as cops.
Some interviewees reported instances of explicitly racist conduct or comments by court officers. According to court officers of color, the use of racial slurs by white court officers is common and often goes unpunished. One public defender relayed a story of being in an elevator with her clients, who happened to be Black teenagers, and multiple court officers.
In response to comments made by the Black teenagers, one white sergeant replied, “Keep
running your mouth. You’ll always be a nigger.” Multiple court officers of color mentioned white court officers using the n-word. One court officer of color recalled an incident where she overheard a white court officer telling another officer that he would have done better on the requalification exam if it had a “Sean Bell target” – referencing the unarmed Black man who was killed on his wedding day after police officers fired 50 bullets into his car. Another court officer of color recounted an incident in a locker room where a white court officer referred to a Black court officer as “one of the good monkeys.” According to interviewees, these incidents were reported, but the court officers involved were not disciplined. One court officer told us that his supervising officer ranted at a Christmas party about how Black people are lucky that they are allowed to be court officers in the first place.
Notably, Johnson can explain how this remains pervasive due to the union.
Though court officers are employees of the Unified Court System, according to several
interviewees, court officer discipline and promotion is heavily influenced by union
leadership, specifically the leadership of the New York State Court Officers Association.
Multiple interviewees occupying various positions within the court system also told us it
is well-known that court officers cannot be promoted unless it is personally approved by
the head of Court Officers Association, who has been president of that union for 46 years.
Court officers of color describe the Court Officers Association as “insular,” and believe
that union leadership has over time become entrenched and insulated itself from any real
scrutiny or challenge.
The problems (plural) were never a big secret, but in 1991, we lacked the will to do anything about them. Today, maybe there’s will but will they be fixed without recognition that these are two distinct problems, bad process and worse racism, both in need of real solutions? Or will there be another report a few decades from now citing back to the 1992 and 2020 reports with the same story using whatever words are fashionable at the time?