By Joseph Ax
NEW YORK, Jan 15 (Reuters) - Ten judges from around New York
state will be reassigned temporarily to the Bronx to combat the
city's worst backlog of felony cases, Chief Judge Jonathan
Lippman announced Tuesday.
The measure was one of several proposed by Lippman,
including stricter case management time frames and increased
judicial efforts to encourage plea agreements, in an effort to
solve what has been a decades-long problem.
"The Bronx numbers, for as long as I can remember -- and
this goes back 40 years in the court system -- have always been
out of skew, particularly as it relates to older felony cases,"
Lippman said at a forum hosted by the Citizens Crime Commission
at Fordham Law School.
The judges, who have not yet been announced, will oversee 10
new special court parts that will exclusively handle trials for
the oldest cases, starting with those that have been pending for
more than three years.
More than 70 percent of felony cases in the Bronx are over
180 days old, exceeding guidelines set by the Office of Court
Administration that call for felony cases to be adjudicated
within six months. That compares with 44 percent in Manhattan,
48 percent in Brooklyn, 52 percent in Queens and 25 percent in
Staten Island, Lippman said.
There are 931 felony cases in the Bronx that have been
pending for two years or longer, more than double the combined
total of the city's four other boroughs.
"This acute backlog of felony cases is entirely unacceptable
to all of us in the courts and the entire justice community in
Bronx County," Lippman said.
The persistent backlog in the Bronx has resisted previous
attempted fixes, including an ill-fated 2004 merger of the
Criminal Court and Supreme Court that allowed criminal judges to
oversee both felonies and misdemeanors in an effort to
streamline the system.
Lippman ended that experiment last year when it became clear
the merger had exacerbated the backlog.
THE 10 JUDGES
The new plan has short- and long-term goals: to resolve the
oldest felony cases quickly and to implement policies that will
ameliorate a backlog that has frustrated defense lawyers,
prosecutors and judges.
The 10 judges will sit in the special trial parts for up to
six months under the supervision of Brooklyn Supreme Court
Justice Patricia DiMango, who will be reassigned to the Bronx.
DiMango will work with lawyers to facilitate guilty pleas
when possible and assign cases to the trial parts if an
agreement cannot be reached.
"We are confident that a large-scale infusion of new judges
to try these older cases, combined with Judge DiMango's proven
skills in attaining pleas and getting cases trial-ready when a
plea is not possible, will eliminate Bronx County's backlog of
older felony cases within six months, if not sooner," Lippman
As part of the long-term effort to address all 3,690 cases
older than 180 days, Lippman said that in addition to the 10 he
plans to assign judges to the Bronx in the coming months.
Moreover, Bronx cases will have tighter motion schedules,
fewer adjournments and case coordinators to ensure that lawyers
whose cases are set for trial move forward without delay.
The plan also includes a shake-up at the administrative
level. Justice Douglas McKeon, who has been the administrative
judge for civil matters in the Bronx since 2011, will now have
responsibility for criminal cases as well, replacing Justice
Efrain Alvarado, who will return to the trial bench.
Justice Robert Torres will serve as McKeon's deputy.
The plan was designed in consultation with Bronx District
Attorney Robert Johnson and the defense bar, including the Legal
Aid Society and private attorneys.
"There are defendants and victims who are living in
uncertainty and anxiety about the outcome of their cases,"
Johnson said at the forum. "Nobody should have to wait years,
especially those who are innocent and those who have been
victims and lost loved ones, to see the outcome of a case."
Steven Banks, the attorney-in-chief for the Legal Aid
Society, and Marvin Raskin, a former president of the Bronx
County Bar Association, praised the effort following Lippman's
"Justice delayed is justice denied, particularly for New
Yorkers who are wrongfully accused of crimes," Banks said.
Follow us on Twitter @ReutersLegal | Like us on Facebook