A report released last month repeated a litany of ongoing concerns about New York Family Courts, including poorly paid attorneys for low-income kids and parents, too few judges taking on the thorny issues of child maltreatment and crimes committed by children, and clients facing a “dehumanizing” courtroom culture.
But in its Dec. 19 periodic report focusing on New York City, the Franklin H. Williams Judicial Commission zeroes in on another issue facing court consumers statewide: the race of judges who serve them.
“While the NYC Family Courts are largely utilized by people of color,” the commission states, in January of last year, 61% of its 54 judges identified as white. There were no Native American judges, but 14 Black, five Latino and two Asian judges. In communities outside New York City, 88% of the 93 Family Court judges last year identified as white.
Among other recommendations to improve racial equity, the Williams Commission calls for greater demographic balance on the Family Court bench, noting that “the judiciary should reflect the diversity of the communities interacting with the courts.”
The report’s authors concluded: “A judiciary that is reflective of the rich diversity of our State strengthens the public’s trust and confidence in our legal system and ensures equity, fairness, and justice for all.”
The Williams Commission — a panel of judges, attorneys and court administrators seeking to eradicate systemic racism in the court system and legal profession — noted some improvements, among them mandating bias education and training for all judges and nonjudicial court personnel, new publicly available demographic data on court professionals and the expansion of diversity initiatives informing professional education, interviewing and hiring practices.
But they reiterated previous high-level evaluations, noting that “Family Courts are currently in crisis, which negatively impacts families, particularly children, who are the most vulnerable.”
Commissioners called for mandatory anti-racism and anti-bias training for all Family Court judges and personnel statewide, increased pay for court-appointed lawyers, and improved scheduling of court hearings to better accommodate families. They also underscored the need for more judges who preside over cases involving domestic violence, parental abuse and neglect, custody battles and youth criminality.
Courts grappling with racial bias
Last month’s report lands amid ongoing controversy surrounding New York’s court system.
In the spring of 2021, “a disturbing racist incident” occurred, commissioners noted in their report, when a Manhattan Family Court clerk was caught on a “hot mic” using a racial slur to refer to a Black teen.
Commissioners praised a committee later formed to address the crisis and its underlying issues. But they now recommend that Family Court judges “receive additional training on judicial temperament and behavior and on exercising control of their courtrooms to ensure proper treatment of litigants and counsel by judges and nonjudicial court personnel.” Specifically, they called for judges and lawyers to be required to call litigants by their proper names, rather than generic labels such as “mom” or “dad,” and to limit anyone yelling or shouting in courtrooms.
Such issues have long been apparent. In 2021, former New York State Chief Judge Janet DiFiore declared the extent of problems in stark terms, stating that “the access to justice crisis is, in so many vital respects, a racial and equal justice crisis affecting the legitimacy of our system.” A year prior, a special adviser to DiFiore brought in to investigate issued a scathing review of Family Court, describing it as a “second-class system of justice for people of color in New York State.”
DiFiore resigned abruptly in July. And as a result, there is ongoing public debate over who should serve as the next chief judge for New York State’s highest court system, the Court of Appeals. The chief judge normally serves 14 years, so the position is considered critical to the future direction of the courts and any needed reforms underway.
Democrats and civil rights leaders have rejected the nominee put forth by Gov. Kathy Hochul (D), Supreme Court Judge Hector D. LaSalle, whom she has called “an outstanding jurist.” If confirmed, LaSalle, who is of Puerto Rican descent, “would make history as the first Latino Chief Judge,” Hochul’s office has stated.
But coalitions of progressive activists and Democratic state lawmakers say LaSalle is too conservative to reflect state residents’ views. They are calling for the promotion of three women: the Deputy Chief Administrative Judge for Justice Initiatives, Edwina G. Richardson-Mendelson, a Black woman; or two white women — Abbe Gluck, a Yale University law professor and Corey Stoughton, attorney-in-charge of special litigation and law reform at the Legal Aid Society.
The state Senate must confirm the final chief justice nomination by month’s end.
Courts aim to reduce bias
The importance of diversity on the bench — particularly in the courts serving children and families in the foster care and youth justice systems — is debated among some. Some court-watchers say an equal balance of male and female jurists is needed. Others say the most vital qualification is people with relevant professional backgrounds and a commitment to remaining in a field dealing with childhood trauma and the effects of poverty on marginalized communities.
Roughly three-quarters of juvenile delinquency petitions statewide involved teens of color, according to the most recent state data.
White people comprised just 7% of children and parents moving through New York City’s child welfare system this past year, according to the Administration for Children’s Services — in a city that is 40% white.
When they reach the Family Courts in New York City, the judge has been appointed by the mayor. Elsewhere in the state, judges are elected by county residents.
The pipeline of lawyers plays a clear role in who is eligible for judgeships. In 2020, 86% of all U.S. lawyers identified as “non-Hispanic white”— only a 3% decrease over the last decade, according to the American Bar Association.
“The judiciary should reflect the diversity of the communities interacting with the courts.”The Franklin H. Williams Judicial Commission
Lucian Chalfen, a spokesperson for the state’s Unified Court System, noted that his agency does not control who becomes judges. But Chalfen said in an email statement that “we believe in and celebrate diversity, as it truly reflects our society.”
“It is helpful on many levels if litigants feel that they are looking across the bench at someone who may at the very least have an understanding of their situation.”
It’s hard to show conclusively that judges of different races make different rulings based on their backgrounds. And one line of inquiry has found little evidence that the overwhelmingly white Family Court bench has been problematic: The New York State Commission on Judicial Conduct investigates well over 1,500 misconduct complaints each year involving state and city judges. According to that commission’s public information officer, Marisa Harrison, while several Family Court judges have been disciplined over the years for sexual harassment or sex-based discrimination, “no Family Court judges have been disciplined for racial bias.”
In a statement emailed by a court spokesperson, Administrative Judge of the Family Court of New York City Anne-Marie Jolly said she “recognizes the benefits of and is committed to having the New York City Family Court reflect diversity in every way and at every level.” But she described this diversity “as one of the many factors that can have a positive impact on reducing the risk of implicit and/or explicit bias within the court.”
Since Judge Jolly’s appointment in November 2021, the New York City Family Court has established Equal Justice Committees in each of the county courthouses, conducted mandatory bias training and “aggressively” publicized a statewide policy of “zero tolerance for bias and the protocol for investigation of bias matters by the Inspector General,” the statement read.
‘Diversity would be valuable’
Court watchers say increasing the number of judges is critical to the diversification of the bench.
“Undoubtedly, there is a need for more judges in Erie County Family Court given the volume of cases and increased workload,” Kevin M. Carter, administrative judge for the 8th Judicial District covering western New York, said in a statement sent through a spokesperson.
Carter, a Black elected Family Court Judge in Erie County, noted his jurisdiction’s demographics: seven judges, comprised of six white women and himself.
“We have had only two persons of color ever elected to a family court in the history of the 8th Judicial District,” Carter said. “The majority of the people who enter the Erie County Family courthouse are people of color. Diversity on the bench would be valuable for so many reasons.”
In Western New York, there is a lack of attorneys of color who specialize in family law, said Robert Turner, who heads the family defense unit at the Monroe County’s Public Defender office. In an email, he added: “And although we currently have non-minority Judges who are fantastic and do a wonderful job, further efforts to expand the pool of such attorneys would mean more would get in the pipeline to eventually seek family court judgeships to further diversify the bench.”
After Judge Charles Willis resigned from the bench in 1987, there was a 30-year period when there was no Black Family Court judge in Monroe County.
Jessica Serrett, an attorney representing youth in the justice system and children in foster care in five upstate counties, asked two of her clients about the importance of having more judges of color. She said they told her they felt fairly treated by white judges and did not have a preference.
Serrett said that while she has a deep respect for the judges she appears before, and they do “an incredible job” of getting to know her clients and understanding their circumstances, “I am sure that my teen clients from a diverse background would specifically benefit from seeing a judge that looks like them.”
“I know diversity and representation matters,” she added, “and youth, particularly those in the legal system, would surely benefit from seeing diverse judges and others in positions of power, simply to remind them that these role models exist, and that there is unlimited potential in this regard.”