ALBANY (TNS) — Judges of color from across the state have signed a letter saying that there is much work to be done to ensure racial equity in the courts, and they are committed to just treatment for all.
More than 100 judges signed the letter, which stated in part: “Each day we seek to dispel any narrative or belief that looks upon courts as instruments of injustice, by treating each person fairly and impartially while upholding our oaths to the constitutions of the State of New York and the United States.
”However, there is much work to be done, and we like all judges must be mindful of the impact of systemic racism or bias in fulfilling the court’s responsibility to ensure equal justice to all under the law,” the letter stated.
Judges from all New York courts — from state Supreme to Surrogate courts to Court of Claims and all others — signed the letter.
Among the judges who signed were Rochester City Court Judges Michael Lopez and Maija Dixon.
Lopez said the letter is a start, and he wants to see the courts find ways to address implicit bias within the courtroom ranks.
”I am highly concerned about whether the powers-that-be that oversee the legal system are genuinely prepared to make the hard decisions that are necessary to remedy the disparity that exists from top to bottom,” he said. “We’re seeing some token measures, but it’s clear that the public will not stand for mere token measures.”
Lopez said he was pleased the New York Chief Judge Janet DiFiore has launched an independent review of the state courts to try to identify and eliminate institutional racism within the system. The letter signed by judges is an indication that judges across New York share concerns about court operations, Lopez said.
”Hopefully letters like this are ways of beginning the conversation,” said Lopez.
Among the 14 jurists from Westchester who signed was one of its newest, New Rochelle City Judge Jared Rice.
He said he didn’t think there was any underlying issue that prompted the letter.
But as judges generally can’t speak out publicly, he welcomed the opportunity “to collectively confirm our commitment to racial equity in our court system.”
Rice said that like every realm of public life institutional racism has seeped into the courts.
He too commended Chief Judge DiFiore for ordering an evaluation of the state courts’ policies and practices to identify and root out such bias.
That review, headed by Jeh Johnson, the former Homeland Security secretary, is expected to last until October.
Rice also said that the courts have to expand restorative justice. As one example, he cited New Rochelle’s study of more opportunities for community service to replace fines that are often unaffordable.
Not all judges saw the need to sign the letter. Rochester City Court Judge Teresa Johnson, who is the administrative judge for the city’s courts, said, “I did not feel compelled to sign on.”
Johnson said she was not critical of those who saw the need to sign the letter, but she personally did not feel compelled to do so.
“Every day, pursuant to my oath and pursuant to what is right, I try to make sure that everybody is treated fairly and without bias,” said Johnson, who has been a City Court judge since 1990.
The sentiment behind the letter has support from the entire state court system, according to system spokesman Lucian Chalfen.
”Their words and sentiments speak for all Judges, Justices and non-judicial employees of the Unified Court System who pride themselves as proponents of the rule of law,” Chalfen said in an email.