State Legislative Candidates Strongly Support Reform of Court System, Survey Finds

New York Times, 31 Oct. 2000

Court reform advocates, hoping to nudge forward their campaign to repair New York's creaky court system, say they now have on record strong support from the state's legislative candidates.

In a survey by the Committee for Modern Courts, an organization of lawyers and judges that monitors the state's courts, 80 percent of the Senate and Assembly candidates who responded said they favored changing the Rockefeller drug laws and 85 percent supported increased pay for court-appointed lawyers.

Almost two-thirds said they favored court restructuring, and 49 percent said they would vote to change from an elective to an appointive system for judges.

Similar changes have been called for, year after year, by bar associations, good-government groups and the state's judiciary. Advocates for change have described the court system as antediluvian, archaic, byzantine, convoluted and embarrassing. And every year they lobby for changes, but fail.

Steven M. Zeidman, the director of the Committee for Modern Courts, said the survey results, which have been reported only in draft form, might help persuade legislators to break up the partisan logjams that have stopped proposals to reorganize the courts and revise the Rockefeller sentencing laws.

"For those on the fence," Mr. Zeidman said, "we can say: 'Look, we have 80 percent of people favoring this. You're not going out on a limb.' "

The survey was sent to 358 candidates, incumbents and challengers, after the September primary. As of last week, 109, about 31 percent, had responded.

Advocates of change in the court system acknowledge that their causes have no clamoring constituency. "You don't get people demonstrating in the streets saying, 'Court reform now,' " said Jonathan Lippman, the state's chief administrative judge and, in effect, the judiciary's chief lobbyist.

Still, Judge Lippman said, the survey "shows to me that we're getting our message across."

Mr. Zeidman said the final report would be distributed to all legislators before the new session begins in January.

The last session, like many before it, ended without action on proposals to restructure New York's courts. A plan outlined by Chief Judge Judith S. Kaye would combine some of the 11 trial-level courts, divide one overburdened appellate district into two and allow the reassignment of judges who are sometimes borrowed for years to serve where they are needed, even if they were appointed or elected to other courts.

Judge Kaye's plan already incorporates some delicate compromises -- leaving intact, for example, the unusual system of electing some judges and appointing others in similar courts -- but any reorganization would require a constitutional amendment and, before that, agreement on the number of judgeships that would effectively belong to each legislative district.

Despite pleas from Judge Kaye, the late Cardinal John J. O'Connor and many Republicans, including some sponsors of the original legislation, the Legislature has abandoned measures to amend the state's drug sentencing laws.

Those mandates, known as the Rockefeller laws, require state judges to impose minimum sentences for a variety of drug offenses.

Mr. Zeidman said that he was surprised that 85 percent of those responding to the survey favored restoring judicial discretion to sentencing of offenders now subject to the 15-year mandatory minimum.

When asked whether the laws had deterred drug crime, 67 percent said no, while 15 percent said yes.

Evan Davis, the president of the Association of the Bar of the City of New York, said that finding would be especially encouraging to the bar association, which has strongly supported revisions in the drug laws.

"Two-thirds of the people thought the Rockefeller drug laws have not helped, and yet we have 22,000 people in prison for nonviolent drug offenses," Mr. Davis said. "This really shows the need for reform. Whether it actually happens is a much more politically complicated question."

Another proposal receiving strong support -- 85 percent -- in the survey was an increase in the fees paid lawyers appointed to represent indigent clients in family and criminal courts.

At $40 an hour for courtroom time and $25 an hour for out-of-court time, the rates are the lowest in the nation and have not been raised since 1986.

Again, Judge Kaye, with the bar associations, has supported increases to reduce caseloads and delays that have grown as more lawyers refuse court appointments.

The pay issue cannot be resolved, however, without a large infusion of state money -- Mr. Davis places the amount at about $70 million -- to supplement fees now paid entirely by local governments.

"It's a political quagmire," said Senator James J. Lack of Suffolk County, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

"It's easy to say on a survey, 'we're glad to increase funds'. It's hard to say to the localities, 'now, you pay for it.' "

Like many who have lobbied for these changes for years, Senator Lack said a restructuring a whole branch of government that has very little power to change itself was required. "In terms of the inability to respond to the needs of society, New York leads far and away," Senator Lack said. Senator Lack became chairman of the Judiciary Committee in 1994, 100 years after the last reorganization of New York's courts. "I thought I'd get it done in a few weeks," he said. "Now it's been 106 years, and I see why it hasn't been done."

By Laura Mansnerus

© 2000, New York Times