Mount Vernon native Janet DiFiore used her first speech as the state’s top judge to point to a reduction in case backlogs and delays and to announce reforms she says will “enhance the delivery of justice for all New Yorkers.”
The Democrat and former Westchester County district attorney delivered her take on the "State of Our Judiciary" at the Bronx Hall of Justice on Wednesday, Feb. 22.
Her choice of site was a departure from a longstanding tradition of delivering the address at Albany’s Court of Appeals Hall.
DiFiore said she chose to speak in the Bronx because the court system there “hasn’t always kept pace with public expectations.”
In fact, she said, it “has been an epicenter for many of the worst delays and backlogs plaguing our justice system.”
DiFiore did not, however, point the finger of blame at the judges or staff attached to the Bronx Supreme Court.
They all “are deeply committed to improving their courts and are well on their way to turning things around and fulfilling our pledge to the people we serve,” the chief judge said.
Since the Excellence Initiative was launched in 2016, the Bronx has made, she said, “dramatic progress.”
Backing up that statement with stats, DiFiore said the county has seen a 50 percent reduction in the county’s backlog of misdemeanor cases to 1,222 in February 2017 from 2,433 cases in June 2016.
According to DiFiore, there has also been 32 percent in the total number of pending misdemeanors over the same period.
“We are exporting our successful ‘Bronx approach’ to the rest of the New York City Criminal Court and seeing improvements in some parts of the city, most notably a 58 percent decrease in the oldest misdemeanor cases in the Manhattan Criminal Court,” DiFiore said.
The judiciary is also training its “laser-like focus” on moving felony cases through the criminal courts “more efficiently,” DiFiore said.
In Suffolk County alone, the number of felony cases -- “pending over standards and goals (the court system’s aspirational timetables for resolving cases)” – have gone down by 58 percent in the last year.
That is partly due to the creation of a trial assignment part that handles the “most difficult to resolve cases,” the top judge said.
Suffolk County’s “proactive approach” has been adopted by felony courts around the state.
In the Ninth Judicial District, which covers Westchester, Dutchess, Rockland, Putnam, and Orange counties the reductions in pending felony caseloads have been “impressive,” DiFiore said.
Some counties, including Westchester, are approaching “zero cases pending over standards and goals,” she added.
In the Seventh Judicial District, which includes Rochester and encompasses eight counties in western New York, DiFiore said that high-tech tools are being used to identify felony cases that are not moving through the system efficiently.
Such cases are flagged and sent to a trial assignment part for a calendar call.
This approach, she said, combined with the adoption of new procedures, has increased dispositions and trials. Felony cases (pending over standards and goals) have declined by 63 percent over the last year.
Similar efforts are being made in the civil courts, DiFiore said, citing a 62 percent increase in the number of foreclosure cases resolved in Brooklyn; a 58 percent reduction in the number of foreclosure cases over standards and goals in Nassau County; and in the Fourth Judicial District, which stretches from Schenectady County all the way to the Canadian border, a 63 percent reduction in the number of oldest civil cases, to 997 cases from 2,694.
DiFiore, who is also a former state and county judge, attributed the improvements to “focused management and plain, old-fashioned work by our judges and their staff.”
Meanwhile, DiFiore said, she and her crew don’t plan to rest on their judicial laurels.
Among other reforms in the hopper is the re-examination of the way the court systems uses “non-judicial resources.
It’s going to take a lot of creativity and flexibility to, DiFiore said, “to make sure that courts everywhere are staying current.”
The Justice Task Force was formed in 2009 to focus on identifying and eliminating the principal causes of wrongful convictions through systemic criminal justice reform.
A former co-chair of the Task Force, DiFiore said its mission will be expanded to address a wider range of issues, including “the impact of protracted delays on the disposition of cases, a review of ethical requirements and disciplinary measures for attorney conduct, and systemic problems in affording all persons due process.”
In a bid to strengthen the system’s “organizational culture,” administrative and supervising judges, as well as non-judicial managers, will be undergoing leadership training, DiFiore said.
As chief judge, DiFiore not only leads New York’s entire court system, she helps decide cases on the Court of Appeals, the state’s highest court.
She was succeeded as Westchester’s district attorney by Acting DA James McCarty.
Last fall, Democrat Anthony Scarpino, a former FBI agent and judge, beat Republican Bruce Bendish, a former prosecutor and a longtime criminal defense lawyer, out for the position.
Scarpino, who also grew up in Mount Vernon, has taught criminal law at Iona College in New Rochelle and has been an adjunct professor and mentor to students at Westchester Community College, Mercy College, and Pace University.