Courts

Anatomy Of An Error

Reporters hate making errors.

But what happens when an error is one that has been running for four years and has been repeated over the last 24 hours?

That’s the conundrum for the death of Judge Sheila Abdus-Salaam. In the dozens of local and national articles published online, in newspapers and aired on television in the hours since her body was found in the Hudson River, she has been described as the first Muslim woman to serve on the Court of Appeals or the first Muslim judge in the U.S.

That description is not accurate. Abdus-Salaam was born Sheila Turner and while her first husband was Muslim, she never converted to Islam, according to Court of Appeals spokesman Gary Spencer.

Full stop: This, of course, does not negate her status as an important trailblazer in the state’s legal history. She was the first black woman to serve on the state’s highest court.

Spencer, the court spokesman, told me Abdus-Salaam did not mind being referred to a as a Muslim woman and never corrected it.

That being said, it’s fascinating, and a bit disturbing to me as a reporter, how this went unchecked, if only for posterity’s sake. Someday there will be a practicing Muslim serving on the Court of Appeals who should be the one to be identified and honored with the distinction.

Attempting to reverse engineer the error and find its source was not easy. The first and earliest erroneously identifying her religion was in a press release from Sen. Kevin Parker’s office.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s office never identified her religion in any of its official statements.

The stories that appeared in The Daily News and The New York Times from April 2013 and May 2013 — the time between her nomination by Cuomo and her confirmation by the state Senate — do not identify her religion either. Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, in a statement released on Wednesday evening, did refer to her incorrectly as the “first Muslim female judge” in the United States.

Which leaves me with this conclusion: Assumptions were made by reporters, at best given only a cursory check and then reported. And during her life she never thought it was important to correct the error, if she saw one at all.

Trail-Blazing Court Of Appeals Judge Dies

Sheila Abdus-Salaam, the first Muslim woman and first African-American woman to serve on the state’s highest court, has died, according to New York City police officials.

She was 65.

Abdus-Salaam’s body was found on Wednesday in the Hudson River, showing no signs of obvious injury.

Born in Washington, D.C., Abdus-Salaam was nominated to the state Court of Appeals as an associate judge in 2013 by Gov. Andrew Cuomo and confirmed in May by the state Senate.

“I was proud to appoint her to the state’s highest court and am deeply saddened by her passing,” Cuomo said in a statement.

“On behalf of all New Yorkers, I extend my deepest sympathies to her family, loved ones and colleagues during this trying and difficult time.”

Previously, she had been elected to the state Supreme Court in 1993 and was appointed an associate justice of the Appellate Division, First Department in March 2009 by Gov. David Paterson.

Gallivan: ‘In A Good Place’ On Raise The Age

From the Morning Memo:

As lawmakers continue to reconcile their differences over a proposal to raise the age at which criminal offenders are treated as adults from 16 to 18 years old, Republican Sen. Pat Gallivan, the Senate point-man for the bill, wouldn’t quite say he’s confident it will pass.

“If people continue to listen to each other and act like adults, as we all have been, we can come to a conclusion and we can get to a place that I think works for everybody, and when I say everybody, our citizens first,” he said.

Gallivan said, overall, lawmakers and the governor are “in a good place” with the proposal, and most legislators agree with the fundamental principles that have been hammered out to date.

“We’ve always been concerned about public safety,” he said. “We recognize that 16 and 17-year-olds are different, that they should not be in the same housing. They should not be housed in a corrections setting with those that are 18 and older. We’re in agreement with the Assembly and the governor on that.”

The main disagreement continues to be about how a proposed two-tiered court system would work, specifically what would constitute lower-level offenses which would be tried in Family Court. The rest of the cases would play out in an alternative criminal court called a youth diversion court.

“As we get down to the details of it, different questions get raised and we have to try to work the details out,” Gallivan said.

A Social Media Warning For Judges

An annual report from the state commission charged with overseeing the judiciary on Friday warned judges of using social media sites like Twitter and Facebook that could undermine their impartiality.

In the report, the commission pointed to the case of a judge in St. Lawrence County who wrote critically in a Facebook post of the prosecution in a case stemming from nominating petitions being filed to qualify for the ballot.

The judge in the case was admonished.

“Particularly where pseudonyms are used, the judge may not know that a person who responds to his/her posting may be involved in a case before the judge or a judicial colleague,” the report states. “At the very least, the appearance of impropriety may well be created in such a circumstance, particularly if others who access the social media page are aware that the judge’s correspondent is also involved in a matter pending before the judge.”

All together, the commission process 1,944 complaints in 2016, the third most in history.

nyscjc.2017annualreport by Nick Reisman on Scribd

Bar Association: Con Con Could Streamline Courts

A constitutional convention could help revise and simplify the state’s complex court system, the state Bar Association found in a report released on Thursday.

“Whether you are for a state Constitutional Convention or against it, all can agree that New Yorkers would benefit from a thorough reconsideration of Article VI and potential reforms that would improve and simplify it,” said Henry M. Greenberg, the chair of the New York State Bar Association’s Committee on the New York State Constitution.

New Yorkers will consider whether to hold a constitutional convention this fall in a referendum, a once-a-decade vote that is being opposed by labor groups and some lawmakers.

But lawyers have zeroed in on the potential overhaul aspects of state government, including the Unified Court System, the modern form of which was established in the 1960s.

The Bar Association’s report points to the complex web of trial-level courts that could be streamlined under changes to the constitution.

“The potential to simplify the state’s court system, promote access to justice and reduce unnecessary costs and inefficiencies make the issue of court consolidation one that is ripe for consideration at a constitutional convention, should voters choose to hold one,” the report says.

“Despite its name, the Unified Court System is anything but-with its patchwork quilt of 11 different trial-level courts and multiple levels of appellate courts.”

Recommendations include addressing a judicial retirement age, the creation of a fifth department, how judges are selected and judicial terms for the trial level.

Report on Judiciary Article by Nick Reisman on Scribd

Senate Confirms Rowan Wilson To Court Of Appeals

The state Senate on Monday confirmed the Court of Appeals nomination of Judge Rowan Wilson.

Wilson, 56, is a litigator at Cravath, Swaine & Moore. His confirmation to the state’s highest court marks the first time two African-American judges are sitting on the bench simultaneously.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo nominated Wilson last month to fill the vacancy created by the retirement of Judge Eugene Pigott.

“With Rowan Wilson’s confirmation as the next Associate Judge on the New York State Court of Appeals, New York gains another supremely qualified and accomplished leader to serve on our state’s highest court,” Cuomo said in a statement.

“Admired for his unassailable integrity, keen intellect and extensive experience handling some of the most pressing legal matters of our time, Judge Wilson is committed to the principles of justice and equality that are the very foundation of New York’s judicial system. I thank Chairman Bonacic, members of the Judiciary Committee, and the Senate for their due consideration of this nominee. I congratulate Judge Wilson on his confirmation, and look forward to his service on behalf of all New Yorkers.”

With Wilson’s confirmation, the seven member court would have been fully remade during the Cuomo administration with his nominees due to mandatory retirements.

Court Of Appeals Ruling Expands Parenthood To Non-Biological, Non-Adoptive Parents

The state’s highest court on Tuesday expanded the definition of parenthood on Tuesday that essentially found a non-adoptive, non-biological parent has the right to custody or visitation.

The ruling in a consolidation of custody cases had considered the question of the legal definition of a parent, reversing a 25-year-old ruling that blocked non-adoptive, non-biological parents from claiming rights of custody or visitation.

The ruling itself cited the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark Obergefell v. Hodges that granted marriage rights to same-sex couples, as well as years of case law on the issue of child custody.

The lawsuits considered by the court were filed by women whose former parents had conceived a child through artificial insemination, their parents carried the child and was raised by the couple. Each couple would ultimately end their relationships, leading to the dispute over custody and visitation.

While seeking to be as narrow as possible, the court’s ruling found the existing legal definition of parent was “unworkable.”

“Under the current legal framework, which emphasizes biology, it is impossible — without marriage or adoption — for both former partners of a same-sex couple to have standing, as only one can be biologically related to the child… By contrast, where both partners in a heterosexual couple are biologically related to the child, both former partners will have standing regardless of marriage or adoption,” Judge Sheila Abdus-Salaam wrote in the majority opinion. “It is this context that informs the Court’s determination of a proper test for standing that ensures equality for same-sex parents and provides the opportunity for their children to have the love and support of two committed parents.”

Still, the court’s ruling was not too far afield, declining to consider situations in which non-adoptive and non-biological parents didn’t decide to conceive a child.

91 92opn16 Decision by Nick Reisman on Scribd

Will McDonnell Ruling Impact Silver, Skelos Convictions?

Convicted last year in separate corruption cases, both former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and ex-Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos had pinned their hopes on avoiding prison time to the corruption case of Bob McDonnell, the disgraced former governor of Virginia.

On Monday, the Supreme Court seemingly handed both Silver and Skelos a gift: McDonnell’s conviction on honest services theft was vacated in a unanimous ruling.

In the ruling, Chief Justice John Roberts acknowledged the facts of the McDonnell case were “distasteful” — namely the governor arranging meetings at the behest of a donor who plied him and his wife with luxury gifts, vacations and a $177,000 loan.

“But our concern is not with tawdry tales of Ferraris, Rolexes and ball gowns. It is instead with the broader legal implications of the government’s boundless interpretation of the federal bribery statute,” Roberts wrote. “A more limited interpretation of the term ‘official act’ leaves ample room for prosecuting corruption, while comporting with the text of the statute and the precedent of this court.”

Nevertheless, U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, the prosecutor who led the convictions of both Silver and Skelos is undisturbed by the Supreme Court’s ruling in the McDonnell case, whose office argued in a statement both New York cases fell within the Supreme Court’s interpretation of corruption.

“While we are reviewing the McDonnell decision, the official actions that led to the convictions of Sheldon Silver and Dean Skelos fall squarely within the definition set forth by the Supreme Court today,” Bharara spokesman James Margolin said in a statement.

Silver was found guilty in November of masking bribes as legal referrals that provided him over the years with $4 million in kickbacks. In turn, Silver used his power as the speaker of the Democratic-led Assembly to provide state grants and other sweeteners to a doctor who then directed patients to the law firm of Weitz & Luxenberg, where the Manhattan lawmaker drew a paycheck in an “of counsel” capacity.

In the Skelos case, the Nassau County Republican was found guilty of aiding his son Adam’s business interests through official actions, including a $12 million contract for a storm sewer project, as well as to the benefit of Glenwood Management, a real estate firm whose founder is a prolific campaign donor.

If overturned, such a development would be a blow to Bharara, whose office is conducting an investigation of upstate economic development projects undertaken by Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s administration, as well as former Cuomo aide and confidant Joe Percoco as well as lobbyist Todd Howe.

In 2009, former Senate Majority Leader Joe Bruno was convicted of a theft of honest services charge in federal court, but that was overturned two years later based on a Supreme Court decision. A subsequent retrial in 2013 led to Bruno’s acquittal.

Silver faces 12 years in prison; Skelos was sentenced to 5 years.

First Latina Family Court Candidate In Monroe County

Monroe County Democrats hope to make a little history this fall by electing the first Latina candidate as a Family Court judge. The party says Maritza Buitrago will be the first candidate to even run.

“I decided to accept the challenge of being a judge because I can make a difference in the lives of families and children,” Buitrago said.

She was born in Puerto Rico where he father served for more than 25 years as a judge. Buitrago came to Rochester on a scholarship and earned her Bachelors and Masters Degrees at the University of Rochester.

“In the history of Monroe County Family Court, since 1962, there has never been a bilingual judge, one who can speak fluently in both English and Spanish. Anyone who has been associated with the court knows the desperate need for that,” retired Family Court Judge Michael Miller said.

Buitrago was rated “Highly Qualified” by the Monroe County BAR Association. She has worked exclusively on Family Court cases in the Public Defenders office since 2009.

“My daily work with families as an assistant public defender has not only given me the knowledge necessary to serve as a judge but the ability to analyze legal issues in a fair and balanced way,” she said.

The Republican candidate is 46-year-old Stacey Romeo. She currently serves as a judicial law clerk in New York State Supreme court.

Romeo has also served as Town Attorney for Pittsford and Irondequoit.

Schumer Still Fielding Questions About Supreme Court Nomination

U.S. Senator Chuck Schumer, D-NY, is getting used to answering questions about filling the Supreme Court seat of late Justice Antonin Scalia. With a new batch of reporters in Buffalo, Thursday, Schumer had his argument down to a well-rehearsed four points.

First, he cited the Constitution. The senator said, it doesn’t state that the president should only be able to act in the first three years of a four year term.

Second, he said the president has precedent to nominate a new Supreme Court justice. He said in the country’s history, 17 justices have been nominated and approved in the last year of a president’s term.

Third, he said the senate should try to avoid the judicial gridlock of a 4-4 split court. Finally, he said senators have an obligation not to obstruct government.

It’s that last part that’s sparked Schumer criticism this week.

In a 2007 speech Schumer said, “We should not confirm any Bush nominee to the Supreme Court except in extraordinary circumstances. They must prove by actions, not words, that they are in the mainstream.”

Monday the senator explained those comments and Wednesday he elaborated even more. Schumer was asked by a reporter if he at least regretted the tone of what he said in the past.

“What I said is right,” he said. “If you think a justice is out of the mainstream and is hiding that, you shouldn’t vote for that person and I have voted no in the past and I probably will in the future.”

Schumer said he hopes President Obama nominates somebody “legally excellent,” moderate, and if all else is equal, diverse. He said over the past few days calls for the president not to nominate have quieted.

“We’ve had at least two Republicans change their minds and a third say, ‘I think there should be a hearing.’ I’m not prejudging how they’re going to vote or how they should vote,” Schumer said.