New York court security officers to receive training on courthouse recording and media rights

In June, a reporter in the Syracuse, New York area was briefly handcuffed by courthouse security after he took pictures of individuals involved in a hallway altercation.  The court had generally prohibited photographing and video recording activities in court hallways, but made an exception for the media.

The reporter was freed after a few minutes and not charged, but court administrators are now requiring all security officers in the six-county area to undergo training on working with journalists as well as proper arrest procedure.  This appears to have been an isolated incident, but it is good to see the court system acknowledging the problem and working proactively with its officers to maintain the proper balance between security and transparency.

Brooklyn judicial candidates accuse local party chief of holding illegal fundraiser for their opponents

I have previously discussed the candidacies of five Brooklyn residents who are running for judge, but refuse to go through the selection system dominated by Democratic Party bosses. In the latest twist in the story, a spokesman for the five candidates has accused local party boss Frank Seddio of hosting a “illegal” fundraiser for the party’s preferred candidates on August 23.

Surely some of this is an effort to stay in the news cycle, but the accusations of spokesman Gary Tilzer are still damning:

Seddio, an attorney, sent the red, white and blue invite to more than 185 people — including sitting judges, judicial candidates, attorneys, developers, politicians, lobbyists and members of the Judicial Screening Committee. The invite vaguely touts fund-raising “to support our contested countywide candidates.”

It doesn’t specify the candidates who will benefit or the election that’s involved.

***

Guests were instructed to write their $500 to $5,000 checks out to the Kings County Democratic County Committee, an account that’s controlled by the Brooklyn Democratic Party, and mail them to Seddio’s home address, according to the letter.

Tilzer’s three-page letter to the committees said Seddio’s fund-raising efforts violate the Rules Governing Judicial Conduct and are unethical on seven points, including not disclosing who the event benefits, inviting sitting judges to contribute and, since the beneficiaries aren’t named, having judicial candidates raising money with potential nonjudicial candidates.

As I have noted before, those who are truly concerned about the influence of money in politics might want to start by shining a light on local hornet’s nests like these.

“Insurgent” judicial candidates in Brooklyn continue their fight against machine politics

In June, I flagged an interesting story of five judicial candidates in Brooklyn who are aggressively running against the Democratic Party machine. These candidates, led by John O’Hara (a lawyer with a colorful and checkered past), assert that the borough’s independent screening panel is really just an arm of the local Democratic Party, and subject to the wishes of party bosses. All but one of the insurgent candidates has refused to go before the panel .

With the primary about a month away, the New York Law Journal weighs in with an article that captures the essence of the insurgency, as well as the establishment position.  The crux of their claims: the party asserts that the 24-member screening panel simply determines candidates’ fitness for the bench, and expects no quid pro quo for the candidates it deems qualified. The O’Hara group alleges that the panel is essentially a mechanism for attorney members to receive future favors from the candidates they endorse.

I generally favor screening panels or nominating commissions as part of a comprehensive judicial selection process. But this challenge makes clear that if the panel itself is not seen as legitimate, neither will the judicial candidates it endorses. And New York has a long and unfortunate history of party boss control over the selection of local judges. We’ll see how it plays out at the September 12 primary.

New York appellate court affirms restrictions on juror anonymity

Under New York law, trial judges may withhold jurors’ addresses from the public and the parties if there is a concern for juror safety. The judge, however, may not withhold the names of jurors. A purely anonymous jury is thought to compromise due process for criminal defendants.

The New York Times reports that a state appellate court recently upheld these restrictions.  In a criminal trial involving four members of an alleged street gang, the trial court declined to provide juror names to counsel, identifying jurors only by number.  Defense lawyers objected, but the trial judge cited to jurors in previous cases who had expressed concerns about their safety. The defendants appealed.

This week, the appeals court sided with the defendants and granted them a new trial, holding that the trial court had violated the statute’s prohibition on purely anonymous juries.

Reform Party files challenge to mandatory judicial retirement age in New York

New York’s Reform Party has filed a challenge to the state’s mandatory retirement age for judges. City and State New York has a detailed and well-balanced article on the lawsuit and the hurdles it faces.  Key bits:

Vincent Bonventre, an expert on judical matters in New York and a professor at Albany Law School, agreed that judges should be able to serve past the age of 70, saying that many of them are just reaching their peak at that stage in terms of experience and perspective. But the lawsuit has little chance of finding success, he said.

Bonventre pointed to decisions in the New York state Court of Appeals and U.S. Supreme Court that have upheld age limits for judges. Additionally, New York’s state constitution specifically provides for a mandatory retirement age. In 2013, a proposed state constitutional amendment that would have raised the retirement age to 80 for state Supreme Court justices and extended the terms of several Court of Appeals judges fell short.

“It’s not even that the New York courts can take an independent state constitutional perspective on this thing, because the state constitution itself provides for this mandatory retirement age,” Bonventre said. “The state courts, in order to overturn mandatory retirement age, would have to do it under federal law.”

To steal a phrase from the blogosphere, read the whole thing.

New York courts prepare to combat opioid overdoses

The New York Law Journal reports that each court in the state will receive an overdose prevention kit containing naloxone (Narcan) and other related medical materials.  Court personnel will receive formal training in the use of the kits as well.

This is a forward-looking and sensible response to the national opioid crisis, and a good example of courts taking seriously their role as forums that serve all members of the community.

More on Brooklyn’s independent judicial candidates

I reported earlier on a group of judicial candidates in Brooklyn who are running outside–really against–the city’s Democratic machine politics.  The candidates are all Democrats, to be sure, but they are seeking office without the blessing of the Democratic establishment.

The Brooklyn Daily Eagle now has more extended profiles on some of the candidates, including their vocal leader, John O’Hara.  Should be an interesting, and possibly ugly, campaign.