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Queens Chronicle

OPINION Mayor must stop delaying the naming of new judges

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Posted: Thursday, January 10, 2019 10:30 am

On Jan. 1, 2019, in an instant, 11 Civil Court judicial seats became vacant. However, these vacancies were not a surprise — they have been pending for months, as has the mayor’s responsibility for appointing judges to fill these empty seats. While Civil Court judges are elected to serve on the bench, should a vacancy arise, state law gives the mayor the responsibility of appointing interim judges to serve one-year terms.

There was plenty of time for the administration to identify and vet qualified judges to ensure all the vacancies were filled by the start of the new year. Inexplicably, Mayor de Blasio has only filled two of the vacancies, leaving nine open judgeships where possible replacements have not yet been identified or vetted by the City Bar.

The mayor’s failure to promptly address these judicial vacancies will exacerbate the speedy trial crisis in New York City courts. Interim Civil Court judges are almost always appointed to Criminal Court, where they hear cases and help reduce the tremendous backlog that currently exists.

Our justice system cannot function without judges. Court delays and backlogs are materially affected by a lack of judges. It is a serious problem to have a substantial number of vacancies when interim appointees could be moving cases through the system and getting people out of Rikers faster. Instead cases are sitting dormant.

As New York’s Chief Judge Janet DiFiore wrote last month to the mayor, “If the vacancies are not filled on time, courtrooms throughout the city will be closed and litigants’ cases will not be heard.” This is bureaucratic inefficiency at its worst, and it will have a profound impact on people’s lives.

Sadly, this is not the first time the mayor has delayed appointing interim Civil Court judges. In 2017, he waited until the end of May to fill eight interim Civil Court judgeships, nearly five months after the seats were vacated. It was not until after I convened a City Council hearing to examine the judicial appointment process that the mayor finally acted.

Last year, the mayor filled nine of 12 interim Civil Court vacancies by early February, an improvement from the previous year, but still weeks late.

In 2019, it is deja vu all over again, with the mayor behind on making his interim appointments to the bench.

We cannot accept the mayor’s unhurried pace for appointing interim Civil Court judges as the new normal. It is not acceptable for him to leave these crucial positions open for weeks and months on end, without a proactive push to get this done. It is not enough for him to talk about reforming our justice system when his own inactivity is undermining its effectiveness.

I will continue to hold the mayor and his administration accountable for these delays and I won’t stop until every judge we are entitled to is sitting on the bench.

Rory I. Lancman is New York City Councilman for the 24th District, in central and northern Queens, Chairman of the Committee on the Justice System and a candidate for Queens District Attorney.

Welcome to the discussion.