Union leaders for the state’s court officers want Gov. Andrew Cuomo and state lawmakers to create an independent commission to oversee the state court system after a lawsuit last week alleged a sexual harassment cover-up by the Office of Court Administration.
Patrick Cullen and Dennis Quirk, presidents of the Supreme Court Officers Association and Court Officers Association respectively, said on Tuesday the lawsuit confirms the need for stronger checks and balances within the judiciary.
They liken their request to that of the now-defunct Moreland Commission, a panel that was tasked with investigating public corruption among New York’s politicians during Cuomo’s first term. The commission proposed by Cullen and Quirk would be tasked with supervising the state court system.
Their call comes days after a former law clerk in the Manhattan commercial division claimed in a lawsuit that she was demoted and eventually fired because she reported acting Supreme Court Justice Douglas Hoffman for sex- and race-based harassment.
The pair wrote a letter to Cuomo on Tuesday asking him to order an independent investigation into the allegations and the conduct of top OCA officials. Cullen said in an interview with the New York Law Journal on Wednesday that the state court system is too large to exist without an extra layer of scrutiny.
“There has to be an independent investigation into what’s basically a branch of government handed a $3 billion budget every year,” Cullen said. “You can’t tell me on the state level there’s no avenue to create a commission to look at hiring practices, spending. There can’t be a closed circle.”
He and Quirk claim the court system has no direct oversight outside of the Inspector General’s Office, which investigates complaints against nonjudicial employees. The state Commission on Judicial Conduct handles complaints against judges.
Last week’s lawsuit goes beyond the sexual harassment claims former clerk Alexis Marquez alleged against Hoffman. She claimed her concerns were ignored by 16 other state court officials, including members of the Court of Appeals, Chief Judge Janet DiFiore, and Chief Administrative Judge Lawrence Marks.
Lucian Chalfen, a spokesman for the state court system, said last week it was their policy not to comment on pending litigation concerning the court “no matter how frivolous, poorly crafted or nonsensical.”
He added on Tuesday that the inspector general investigated Marquez’s complaints, regardless of the other officials she brought her concerns to.
“The allegations were fully and comprehensively investigated by our inspector general,” Chalfen said. “In fact, Ms. Marquez, after several attempts were made to interview her, declined to participate in our investigation.”
Cullen said if that’s the case, a good starting point would be to overhaul the Inspector General’s Office.
“A complete revision of the entire Inspector General’s Office, how it’s commissioned, certain qualifications for people who conduct the interviews and a true independent investigatory spirit,” Cullen said of changes he supported. “Not some predetermined or selective hearing when it comes to which cases they hear and which they don’t. “
Cullen and Quirk said their members have told them of instances when they submitted complaints to the Inspector General’s Office and never heard back. At that point, there’s nothing an employee can do, Quirk said, because there is no oversight beyond DiFiore, who appoints the inspector general.
“Here, there is no independent person,” Quirk said. “Here, everything is controlled by [DiFiore.]”
Chalfen said DiFiore is already an independent monitor on the state’s court system and has made significant progress since her appointment in 2016 to improve oversight and accountability.
“The State Court system already has an overseer, the chief judge,” Chalfen said. “And it is interesting that they want an independent oversight commission when it’s been this chief judge who is changing the status quo and has held both judicial and nonjudicial managers accountable for their actions and the actions of their staff.”
The position of inspector general is also new relative to the rest of the court system. It was first created by former Chief Judge Judith Kaye in 2000 to investigate instances of favoritism within the judiciary. The position remained permanent.
The commission proposed by Cullen and Quirk would be a new check on the inspector general, who is already tasked with monitoring standards and criminal actions within the state court system.
It’s unclear exactly how the commission would be created. Cuomo was able to unilaterally create the Moreland Commission to Investigate Public Corruption through the Moreland Act and his power as governor. A commission to investigate the judiciary may be more complicated because it’s a separate branch of state government.
A spokesman for Cuomo said the office was reviewing the letter from Cullen and Quirk.
“We are closely reviewing the letter and this situation, which appears to have occurred in a separate branch of government,” the spokesman said.
Such a commission may need approval from the legislature, and even a change to the state’s constitution, which provides much of the guidance on the separation of powers in state government. That would likely require the approval of lawmakers who chair the judiciary committees in both chambers.
Sen. John Bonacic, a Republican from Orange County, declined to comment due to the pending litigation. He’s retiring at the end of this year, leaving his post as judiciary chair open for the taking. Assemblyman Jeffrey Dinowitz, a Democrat from the Bronx, also declined to comment.
Cullen and Quirk hope to get Cuomo on board with the idea so he can convince lawmakers it’s worth looking into.
“The governor is the elected leader of the state,” Cullen said. “By him coming out and saying there seems to be an issue here, we need to look at … there has to be avenues of that and we welcome the entire state legislature to get involved and look into this.”