The Legal Aid Society Will Work With The Judiciary On The Court's Plan To Address Felony Backlog In The Bronx

Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman announced yesterday that at least 10 judges will be deployed from outside New York City to tackle the Bronx felony backlog. Appearing with the Chief Judge at the announcement, Steven Banks, the Attorney-in-Chief, said that The Legal Aid Society, as the primary criminal defense provider in all five boroughs of New York City, "stands ready" to work with the courts and the prosecution to tackle the backlog. He also thanked the Chief Judge for "making the magic additional ingredient of additional resources available."

New York Law Journal
Judges Enlisted to Attack Bronx Felony Backlog
By Andrew Keshner

In an effort to address the Bronx's "singularly intractable" felony backlog, court administrators will deploy at least 10 judges from outside New York City to conduct trials over the next six months for the borough's oldest felonies.

"Given the age and status of the current Bronx caseload, this is an absolutely essential step," Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman (See Profile) said yesterday in an address to the Citizens Crime Commission of New York City.

Starting early next month, before going to trial, the older cases will come before Brooklyn Supreme Court Justice Patricia Di Mango (See Profile) in what Lippman called the newly established "blockbuster part."

Di Mango is the deputy administrative judge of the Brooklyn Supreme Court criminal term but will be working full time in the Bronx for the next six months.

If plea negotiations break down, Di Mango will assign the cases for trial to one of the volunteer judges tapped for the effort.

Chief Administrative Judge A. Gail Prudenti (See Profile) said in an interview that the part will pull from a pool of judges. Once the part opens, between five and 10 trials will be conducted at any given time, she said.

The current caseloads of volunteering judges will be absorbed in their respective districts, said Prudenti. Added costs to pay for travel and other expenses would be "very modest," she said.

Prudenti said the incoming volunteers would have "extensive experience in felony matters." She later noted the pending cases they will hear include charges of homicide, robbery and sex crimes—"some of the very heaviest cases in the system."

The names of the judges have not yet been made public, as court administrators are still finalizing their reassignments, which will be for "all or part of the next six months," Lippman said in his speech.

First up for Di Mango and the additional judges—described by Lippman in an interview as a judicial "SWAT team"—will be the 271 felony cases that are three years old or older.

In all, the Bronx has 931 felony cases that are two years or older, compared to 217 pending cases that old in Manhattan, which has the next largest backlog.

The Bronx has 3,690 felony cases—73 percent of the total—that are older than six months, which is the benchmark used by the court system to evaluate performance in superior courts.

That compares to 44 percent of pending felonies exceeding the standard in Manhattan, 48 percent in Brooklyn, 52 percent in Queens and 25 percent on Staten Island.

In the new part, cases will be tried in the Bronx, with the volunteer judges availing themselves to "unused and renovated courthouse space," said Lippman.

Apart from the influx of volunteers, Lippman said the courts would be "instituting strict case management practices," such as shorter adjournments, earlier return dates, the appointment of case coordinators and the centralized drafting of motion decisions.

Currently, 31 judges handle felony matters in the Bronx while 14 preside over misdemeanor cases.

Lippman noted in his speech that in the long run "a sufficient number of judges is essential for the court to be able to effectively manage its formidable caseloads."

The court system assigned some new judges to the Bronx earlier this month after Mayor Michael Bloomberg appointed Criminal Court judges, Lippman said. More judicial appointments from the city are expected in the coming months "and when they are made we will use that opportunity to assign additional judges to that court, while making sure that the present judicial levels are, at the very least, maintained in the other boroughs—so they can continue their own successes in reducing their older caseloads."

Lippman said after his speech that the goal of the new initiative is to "at least" make the Bronx's felony backlog levels comparable to the other boroughs.

Though the effort is set to last for six months, Lippman said that at that time court administrators will "see where we are. Hopefully not in this fix again."

'Living With Uncertainty'

Bronx District Attorney Robert Johnson voiced enthusiasm for the project in his own remarks following Lippman's speech.

"I can't wait to begin this project," said Johnson, a longtime advocate of more judges for the Bronx. He added that it is "very rare" for a prosecutor's case to "get easier with age." He noted, for example, that "witnesses disappear and memories fade."

Moreover, said Johnson, the backlog has led to defendants and victims "living with uncertainty and anxiety" about the resolution of their cases.

Johnson, whose office has more than 400 prosecutors, said assistants' caseloads will be re-evaluated and, where possible, reassignments will be made to balance pending cases.

Saying yesterday that he had been "screaming as loud as I can for as long as I can" for additional judges, Johnson said, "It's so wonderful to hear there are going to be 10 judges here almost immediately to try cases."

Members of the defense bar also praised the measure.

Steven Banks, the Legal Aid Society's attorney-in-chief, said his organization "stands ready" to work with the courts and the prosecution to tackle the backlog.

Banks thanked Lippman for "making the magic additional ingredient of additional resources available."

Likewise, Marvin Ray Raskin, cochair of the Bronx County Bar Association's criminal law section, thanked Lippman and said, "We will do everything in our control to make the court system function effectively."

In his speech, Lippman acknowledged that the Bronx has long been confronted with large backlogs.

Lippman's announcement—made with the city's five district attorneys, a number of judges, court administrators and attorneys in the audience—follows a decision last year by court administrators to undo a 2004 merger of the Bronx's lower Criminal Court with its Supreme Court (NYLJ, April 9, 2012).

The merger was instituted with the hope of trimming the borough's misdemeanor case backlog, but felony backlogs have surged under the merged court. The merger was dismantled in October (NYLJ, Oct. 4, 2012).

In his remarks, Lippman acknowledged that the merger "did not help the situation as had been hoped."

He said he had named Justice Douglas McKeon (See Profile), already the administrative judge for civil matters in the Bronx, as administrative judge for criminal matters as well.

McKeon replaces Acting Justice Efrain Alvarado (See Profile), who Lippman said "served with distinction" over the past four years.

Alvarado will return to the trial bench full time, said Lippman, who noted that the judge had made "diligent and committed efforts…perform[ing] under very challenging circumstances."

Alvarado did not respond to a request for comment.

Lippman also tapped Bronx Supreme Court Justice Robert Torres (See Profile) as deputy administrative judge in the Bronx.

Lippman did not solely focus on the Bronx during his speech.

He said that, effective immediately, administrative judges throughout the state will have to send monthly reports to Prudenti listing all felony cases pending for at least a year and the reasons behind the lack of resolution.

"This will regularly focus attention on these cases, and facilitate more rapid redeployment of resources when that is warranted," Lippman said during his speech.