Family Court watchers hope for more attention on child welfare and youth justice
In her resignation letter this week, New York’s highest-ranking judge Janet DiFiore said “it is time for me to move on to the next chapter of my life.”
Progressive leaders in the Democratically controlled state Legislature are already calling for the court to shift left in its next chapter.
And the book to be written — for those desperate to see reforms in the Family Court system — is still an urgently unfinished story.
“We trust the Governor will appoint a successor who will prioritize service to the most vulnerable New Yorkers and will help to ensure that equal access to justice becomes a reality and no longer simply an aspiration,” said Karen Freedman, founder and executive director of Lawyers for Children, representing New Yorkers in foster care.
Chief Judge DiFiore, 66, has presided over the state’s most significant youth justice reform in recent history. She has facilitated high-profile commissions and reports detailing how the New York courts fail to serve their most frequent users, low-income residents and people of color.
But after presiding over the justice system during the turbulent early pandemic, with courtrooms shuttered and often shaky access to virtual hearings, DiFiore is stepping down just six years into the chief justice’s 14-year tenure.
She leaves the state’s highest court in August, to be replaced by an acting judge selected by her peers. Her successor will be nominated for Senate approval by Gov. Kathy Hochul (D).
“Over the past seven years, thanks to the hard work and skill of many people, we have made incredible progress to achieve these goals, eliminating what many thought to be an intractable statewide backlog of cases, and creating a new culture that is laser-focused on efficient case management and the delivery of high-quality court services,” DiFiore said in her letter.
She added that she is “deeply proud” of what she was able to accomplish and knows the court is “well-prepared to meet the future justice needs of every lawyer, litigant and court user who comes to our courthouses seeking fair, timely and effective justice services.”
Hours after the New York Times broke news Monday that DiFiore would be stepping down, the legal news website Law360 reported that she is facing investigation by a state judicial ethics watchdog. The outlet obtained documents describing allegations DiFiore interfered in a separate disciplinary review of the state court officers’ union leader.
A spokesperson for the court system said the ethics investigation was unrelated to DiFiore’s retirement.
DiFiore, a former Westchester County district attorney who started her judicial career in Family Court, was nominated to the Court of Appeals by former Gov. Andrew Cuomo in 2015. Her post involves hearing cases with the nine-person high court in Albany, and overseeing the state’s entire multibillion-dollar judicial system, with more than 2,000 bench officers and more than 14,000 court staff.
The resignation has ignited calls this week for a more progressive replacement from leaders within the Democratic supermajority in the state Senate that must confirm Hochul’s choice.
“Janet DiFiore’s resignation allows for a necessary recalibration of our state’s highest court,” said Sen. Mike Gianaris of Queens. His statement cited recent “wrong-headed decisions” by the Court of Appeals DiFiore leads in favor of law enforcement and corporate employers.
“I encourage Governor Hochul to choose a nominee who better reflects the values of our state and look forward to a more robust confirmation process to ensure that happens,” Gianaris said.
The Senate Judiciary Committee chair applauded DiFiore for leading the court through an “extremely difficult period” and commissioning a thorough report on racial bias in the courts. But Manhattan lawmaker Brad Hoylman echoed Gianaris, stating that the Court of Appeals had “become increasingly out of step with the needs and desires of New Yorkers on issues such as workers’ rights, criminal justice, and tenants’ rights.”
Hoylman added: “I’m resolute that the Chief Judge’s replacement must be a jurist who will lead our Court of Appeals in a much-needed course correction that uplifts the vulnerable and ensures equity and justice for all.”
Youth advocates agree.
“As the U.S. Supreme Court and other federal courts take away individual rights, overturn much-needed state laws, and otherwise threaten New Yorkers, now more than ever we need a New York Court of Appeals that upholds and advances the progressive laws and jurisprudence that New York deserves,” Peter Martin, director of Judicial Accountability at Center for Community Alternatives said in a public statement. “The upcoming Chief Judge vacancy provides an opportunity to move in that direction, and we call on the Governor and the State Senate not to waste it.”
Martin went on to describe New York’s highest court as rivaling the U.S. Supreme Court, “in its dramatic shift to the right.”
And “to begin righting the wrongs of the last several years,” he added, “we call on Governor Hochul to nominate a progressive new Chief Judge who has demonstrated deep commitment to upholding the rights of marginalized New Yorkers, and for the State Senate to demand the same.”
Court scrutiny under DiFiore
DiFiore presided during the state’s 2017 “Raise the Age” reform, which involved a major reorganization of the courts overseeing the juvenile justice system, a shift ensuring that 16- and 17-year-olds were no longer automatically prosecuted as adults.
Then-Gov. Cuomo had previously appointed her to a 2014 commission tasked with designing the reform law. In a 2015 op-ed, the former DA bucked her peers’ often-held views, writing that raising the age of criminal responsibility to 18 would not pose a public safety risk and would better align the state with what science says about the adolescent brain. She called the law that would come to be known as “Raise the Age” “an historic opportunity to reform our criminal justice system’s approach to young offenders in ways that will make our communities safer and provide positive direction for these young people.”
Three years ago, DiFiore called for greater investment in the attorneys representing parents with children in foster care, who have not seen raises in two decades.
In 2019, she established a 19-member commission to improve the quality of lawyering for parents accused of child maltreatment, who are disproportionately Black and low-income. In her State of Our Judiciary speech that same year, she described the $75 pay and high caseloads for attorneys in Family Court as a result of an “underfunded” and “overwhelmed” parental legal representation system, leading to “inadequate legal services with harmful consequences for children and families.”
In 2020, DiFiore commissioned a broader and harder-hitting report that found “a second-class system of justice for people of color,” within the state court system that was particularly pronounced in Family Court.
The pandemic has caused more harm to the overburdened Family Court, according to a 40-page report released January. The state bar association and the nonprofit Fund for Modern Courts cited a shortage of judges, outdated technology, poor public access and inadequate legal counsel for unrepresented litigants, causing “harm to thousands of families” and “serious constitutional issues.” The authors called for improvements to the courts technology and more resources to address the current case backlog.
There have been no new investments to date in New Yorks’ parents’ attorneys, despite an ongoing legal challenge, years of advocacy, and calls by DiFiore for greater financial investment by the state.
But last month, the governor signed off on lawmakers’ plans to hire six new Family Court judges, a significant move given the overloaded nature of current dockets. The incoming judges begin their term in January and will preside over cases including child support, custody and visitation, child abuse and neglect and other sensitive matters.
Michael Fitzgerald contributed to this report.