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State judiciary vows to reverse troubled Bronx criminal court merger

A move to have the same judges hear both misdemeanor and felony cases blamed for years-long delays in Bronx trials

Bronx Supreme Court took in Criminal Court judges eight years ago, and chaos followed. Photo: Alice Brennan

The state Office of Court Administration will reverse the controversial 2004 merger of the Bronx Criminal and Supreme courts, which attorneys have blamed for lengthy delays that infringe on the rights of criminal defendants.

In his first move as deputy chief administrative judge, the second highest-ranking position in the New York State court administration, freshly appointed Justice Lawrence Marks told the World today.

“We have decided in the last couple of weeks, this is the best solution for the Bronx,” he said.

Eight years ago, responding to a drop in felony cases and a surge in misdemeanor offenses, then-chief judge Judith Kaye combined the Bronx Criminal Court, which handled misdemeanors, with the criminal part of the Supreme Court that presided over felonies. Criminal court judges became acting Supreme Court justices, and the justices were required to take on misdemeanor cases in between their felony trials.

New York’s court system, Judge Kaye said, was “antiquated,” and “the fragmentation of New York City’s trial courts between Criminal Court and Supreme Court turns common sense on its head.”

But the merger has since been blamed for a crippling backlog of cases in the Bronx Criminal Court. The latest figures from the Office of Court Administration show that alleged felons in the Bronx wait an average of 1,018 days before they receive a trial. That’s more than double the wait in any other borough in New York City, and years longer than the 180-day deadline in the state statute ensuring defendants’ constitutional right to a speedy trial. The majority wait behind bars because they are either not offered bail or can’t afford it.

Delays have helped keep 29-year-old William Gay behind bars without trial since early 2008. He stands accused of murder, manslaughter and weapons possession after he allegedly shot and killed a man in a night club. According to Gay’s attorneys, there is one witness to the shooting, no DNA, no fingerprints and, in their opinion, no specific evidence that it was Gay who shot the man. Gay has proclaimed his innocence since he was locked up more than four years ago, but he has still had no chance to prove it. Court records show his case has been adjourned 51 times.

“This is a straightforward homicide, as straightforward as homicides get,” said Cesar Gonzalez, who was previously Gay’s defense lawyer. “There is no reason Gay should wait four years to have his day in court.” Gay’s next scheduled appearance in Bronx Supreme Court is at the end of this month.

Gonzalez says he welcomes the announcement by Judge Marks to unwind the merger. “It was a nice thought in principle, but the implementation was unworkable,” he said,  “None of the judicial resources were allocated to accommodate all the misdemeanor cases, and the judges were just overloaded.”

In a statement to the World, Bronx District Attorney Robert T. Johnson said the bottom-line issue is not enough men and women on the bench. “Whatever the structure, the real need is for additional judges and justices,” he said. Last year, just 206 felony cases went to trial in the Bronx, significantly fewer than in the other New York City boroughs.

The state Unified Court System released a review of the combined court three years ago and determined the merger “has not yet proved to be a wholly effective solution.” While the backlog in misdemeanor cases had dropped since the changes, as Judge Kaye had intended, the number of felony cases still stuck in the system had almost doubled five years after the move, from 2,697 in 2004 to 4,634 in 2009.

The merger has caused tension within judicial circles too. In 2010, New York’s highest court overturned an appellate decision against the merger, brought by the Legal Aid Society. The advocates claimed Judge Kaye’s action was unconstitutional and that she’d overstepped her position as chief judge.

New York’s current chief judge, Jonathan Lippman, had recently indicated his intention to undo his predecessor’s Bronx experiment, but Marks’ announcement is the first public announcement that the courts are taking the split seriously.

Judge Marks told the World the judiciary had not yet decided how it would go about unmerging the Bronx court but would release a plan by this summer. “The merger, despite being strategically introduced, simply didn’t create the results it was intended to,” he said. “To dismantle it in a way that doesn’t disrupt the court system will be a great challenge and we’ll have to do so very carefully.”

Dividing the courts could mean more than 10,000 misdemeanor cases and unindicted felonies would have to be transferred from the Supreme Court back to the Criminal Court, along with more than two dozen judges working there. But Judge Marks says the long-term benefit will outlive the temporary discomfort. “It is my intention to reverse this failed experiment once and for all,” he said, “to the defendants waiting excessive amounts of time for trial we owe this, at least.”

 

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