Judges to talk about challenges to judicial independence

A federal judge and two state judges will take center stage at Pace University School of Law on Tuesday, Nov. 15 to share their personal struggles with challenges their judicial independence and other political challenges to judges around the world.

U.S District Judge Harold Baer, New York Appellate Justice Helen E. Freedman and 9th Judicial District Administrative Judge Alan Scheinkman will lead the 90-minute discussion starting at 5:30 p.m. at the New York State Judicial Institute on the law school campus, 84 North Broadway in White Plains. The event is free and open to the public, and a reception will be held a half-hour prior to the panel discussion.

The panel discussion will spotlight Baer’s new book, “Judges Under Fire: Human Rights, Independent Judges, and the Rule of Law.” The book includes his controversial 1995 decision to suppress evidence of 80 pounds of heroin and cocaine worth more than $5 million that was obtained by stopping a car, after finding that the police did not have reasonable suspicion sufficient for the arrest. His decision prompted 200 members of Congress to demand that President Bill Clinton ask Baer to resign. Baer later reversed his ruling after the government presented a fuller case and the defendant took the stand.

The federal courts in particular have come under attack this year by Republican presidential candidates. According to the New York Times, “Gov. Rick Perry of Texas favors term limits for Supreme Court justices. Representatives Michele Bachmann of Minnesota and Ron Paul of Texas say they would forbid the court from deciding cases concerning same-sex marriage. Newt Gingrich, the former House speaker, and former Senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania want to abolish the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, calling it a ‘rogue’ court that is ‘consistently radical.’” The Supreme Court has been the target of liberal criticism as well, following its ruling in Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission, which lifted a national ban on corporate spending in political campaigns by finding that such spending was protected free speech.

I’m told that the judges will stay away from politics in their discussions on Tuesday.

And now … a mouse in Yonkers Family Court

Back in July, we wrote about the lousy conditions in Yonkers Family Court, which state court officials called one of the worst family courts in New York because of the overcrowding, security problems and accessibility violations in the downtown building.

Well, apparently the problems reached a new level today — a mouse (not necessarily this one) ran across the waiting room floor at about 10:30 this morning.

“You can’t make this stuff up,” Administrative Judge Alan Scheinkman said.

While this may be the first time a rodent was spotted during business hours, Scheinkman said, the building at 53 S. Broadway that houses Family Court has had vermin problems for a while. He said an exterminator came about six months ago to clean house, but evidence of the long-tailed critters remains.

“We’ve had their droppings. We’ve had their odors,” he said.

Still no word from Westchester County officials if they’ll move Yonkers Family Court into a newer, better facility. Scheinkman said he has exchanged ideas with county administrations, but that nothing has been decided.

Court calendar conservation?

Making my daily rounds at the Westchester County Courthouse, I’ve been noticing that fewer and fewer judges are posting their court calendars outside of their courtrooms anymore. For the uninitiated, court calendars are a list of the cases that are scheduled to appear before a particular judge. The list include the defendant’s name, the charges against him/her, what kind of court appearance it is (arraignment, sentencing, etc.), the assistant district attorney’s name and the defense lawyer’s name.

Needless to say, those calendars a pretty good source of information to a reporter.

I called Administrative Judge Alan Scheinkman to complain about the disappearing lists and, to my surprise, he said it was intentional: “It’s an effort to go green,” he said. “We’re really trying to discourage unnecessary paper.”

He noted that the court calendars were now listed on an electronic calendar on the first floor. Trouble is, the scrolling computer screen is hard to read, and it only lists the top charge of the indictment — if it lists any charges at all. I told this to Scheinkman, and he replied that I could always go to the individual court clerks and ask to see a copy of the judge’s daily calendar.

Yes, I can do that, I told him, and when if the court clerks give me a hard time about it, he will be the first to know.

New judge on MLK Jr. Boulevard

photo_courtroom_smThe newest addition to the Westchester County courthouse is Judge Albert Lorenzo, a court of claims judge formerly stationed in the Bronx, who will be hearing criminal cases here throughout 2010.

Administrative Judge Alan Scheinkman said that Lorenzo, who lives in Armonk, is “highly regarded” for his judicial ability. Scheinman sent former Westchester court of claims Judge Robert A. Neary, who lives in Pound Ridge, down to the Bronx to take Lorenzo’s spot, saying that moving judges around gives them a “different perspective.”

Lorenzo’s courtroom (for now) is on the first floor, in what used to be Judge Jeffrey Cohen’s courtroom. Cohen, who lives in Yorktown, became a state judge and was transferred to Orange County.

Photo courtesy of nycourtsystem.com

Westchester divorce court shakeup

There’s another round of big changes coming to Westchester’s matrimonial courts.

Administrative Judge Alan Scheinkman tells me that he is the midst of reorganizing the court, which handles divorce cases. The court is losing one of its four judges to the Bronx, he said, leaving three to take on an overwhelming caseload.

Right now, the four matrimonial judges handle 150 to 200 cases. Each. It’s causing divorces to drag on for years and years, Scheinkman said, and that has to stop. He wants to speed up the process by eliminating unnecessary motions filed by lawyers and keeping discovery deadlines firm. Not only would this save time, he said, but would reduce the financial and emotional costs for litigants.

Scheinkman, who oversees the 9th Judicial District, which includes Westchester, Rockland, Putnam, Orange and Dutchess counties, said he would have a better idea in a week or two of how the changes would work for matrimonial judges Linda Jamieson, Bruce Tolbert and Sam Walker.

The last shake-up for the matrimonial courts was in 2006, when the state court system replaced three judges following complaints of mishandled divorce cases.

It began in the wake of a feud between Francis Nicolai, then the administrative judge of the 9th Judicial District, and special referee James Montagnino. Montagnino, a former county prosecutor and longtime court system employee, was accused by several litigants of treating them unfairly. Several female plaintiffs took particular offense at a lecture he gave at Pace Law School two years ago in which he discussed the “10583 Syndrome,” a reference to Scarsdale’s zip code. He was talking about the mentality of stay-at-home mothers in upscale communities having a sense of entitlement to huge divorce settlements from their wealthy husbands.

Montagnino insisted that the comment was taken out of context from a discussion of the distribution of assets and that he was not biased against women and treated all litigants appropriately. He questioned the timing of the investigation, saying it was in response to his own criticism of Nicolai.

Whatever the reasons, Surrogate Anthony Scarpino was named supervising judge of the divorce courts and several judges handling matrimonial cases were reassigned. The role of special referees who mediate divorces also was curtailed; they can mediate custody cases or financial cases, but not both for the same litigants.

Montagnino was transferred to the 3rd Judicial District in Albany. Nicolai stepped down as administrative judge this year and became the presiding justice of the state Supreme Court’s Appellate Term for the 9th and 10th districts.