We write on behalf of the Capital District Black & Hispanic Bar Association and the Capital District Chapter of the Women’s Bar Association of the State of New York. Together, our organizations represent hundreds of minority and women attorneys, including gay and lesbian individuals, who live, work and practice in the Third Department, many of whom are actively litigating in local courts.
We would like to respond to “Experts Identify Obstacles to Integrating Albany Bench,” (NYLJ, May 6, 2014). The article explores why there are no minority judges on the Appellate Division, Third Department, and quotes sources who suggest that the “core” problem is the lack of qualified minority lawyers in the community.
We are grateful that the NYLJ has brought attention to the lack of diversity on the bench in the Third Department, but we believe the article did not go far enough in terms of identifying the obstacles minority attorneys face when seeking judicial offices, with the result that some mistruths about our legal community may be perpetuated. We take significant exception with the conclusion of those quoted in the article who found there is a lack of qualified minority attorneys in the Third Department.
What goes unsaid is that Appellate Division justices come from the Supreme Court bench, and the nomination process for Supreme Court is a closed one. Any attorney with the desire to serve as a judge can run for city court, for example, with or without the party’s backing, and if she gets enough signatures from voters on her nominating petitions, she will be on the ballot.
Whereas, it is practically impossible for candidates to make it onto the ballot for Supreme Court without going through nominating conventions which are controlled by party chairs. This process rewards only those who are firmly entrenched in the political pipeline and does not allow room for political outsiders to become involved. Minorities and women have had significant difficulties breaking into the inner political circles that make these political appointments.
Furthermore, the insiders quoted in the article suggest that to be qualified for a Supreme Court position in the Third Department, a minority lawyer needs extensive experience in an established litigation firm as well as political affiliation. The sources then assert that there are no minority attorneys in our community who fit the bill. We assert that nothing could be further from the truth. First, we count among our members numerous minority and women lawyers who have extensive litigation experience and are eminently qualified to serve on the Supreme Court bench, including many who are serving on lower courts such as City, County and Family courts.
Second, the statement ignores the litigation experience of lawyers working in public service, such as in the attorney general’s litigation bureau, the public defender’s offices, and district attorney’s offices, as well as those in non- profit organizations, such as The Legal Aid Society. Almost all of the current trial level judges presiding in the Third Judicial district practiced in public service before being appointed or elected to the bench.
Statistics show that there are more minorities and women working in these career tracks than there are in “established litigation firms.” It is no wonder party insiders are unable to identify qualified minority candidates for the bench—they do not seem to be looking in the right places.
Third, what is the definition of “political affiliation”? Most, if not all of the attorneys in the Third Department are registered voters with a particular political party affiliation. In fact, many volunteer on campaigns (if not prohibited by their employer), engage in get-out-the-vote events and voter protection on Election Day.
We acknowledge that some, but certainly not all, of these individuals lack the political contributions the parties may desire. But we contend that diversity is such an essential component of our justice system that a well-qualified woman or minority attorney should be given the opportunity to serve the community even if he or she has not “paid their dues” to the party, particularly given that party loyalty has little bearing on whether an attorney has the temperament, demeanor, education and experience to be a competent judge.
As Presiding Justice Karen Peters noted, the lack of diversity in the Supreme Court, Third Department is more reflective of the political process and the individuals who run the local political parties which are still dominated by white men. It is still extremely difficult for women and minorities to break into the political pipeline, especially in the Capital District. The capital women’s bar has, for many years, written to the party chairs and judicial nominating delegates seeking to work together to identify qualified women and diverse candidates for the judiciary at all levels.
This spring, both the Capital District Black and Hispanic Bar Association and the Capital District Women’s Bar Association sent a joint appeal to local party chairs requesting that they consider including women and minority candidates to their slates to address the issue of lack of diversity in the judiciary.
To date, these appeals have gone unanswered.
But we remain hopeful that the political parties will respond to our call to action by meeting with our organizations to identify all qualified individuals for the judiciary including women and minority attorneys. We are confident that a concerted effort to address this issue will make the Supreme Court in the Third Judicial District more reflective of the community it serves.
The authors are president of the Capital
District Black and Hispanic Bar Association
and president of the Capital District
Women’s Bar Association respectively.