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Diversity in the Courts

On November 4th, voters will elect five New York State Supreme Court trial justices. NY State Supreme Court is the trial court with the broadest jurisdiction. All types of cases can be brought before the court, except cases involving claims against the state, which must be heard in the Court of Claims. The judicial composition of the court should reflect the broad ethnicity of the approximate one-million citizens that it serves.

New York State courts are divided into twelve districts and four Appellate Division Departments. The Eighth Judicial District includes the Supreme, County, Family and Surrogate Courts in the 8 counties of Western New York. There are also 11 City Courts and 197 Town and Village Courts in the district.

According to the NYS Unified Court System’s website, there are presently 29 trial justices on the State Supreme Court in the 8th judicial district. Only two of the justices are minority; one African-American female and one Native-American male. There are no minority justices serving on the Court of Claims. No minority judges serve on any court on any level in the district outside of Erie County and only one African-American male judge serves on the County level in Erie County. Buffalo City Court has 5 minority judges out of 13; the largest number of minority judges outside of New York City. However, no minority judges serve on the 10 other city courts and no minority judges serve on any of the 197 Town and Village Courts in the 8th Judicial District.

One minority judge out of seven serves on the NYS Supreme Court Appellate Division in the 4th Department. If she were to retire, there would be no minority judges on that Appellate Court. Only one qualified minority judge in western New York is an eligible replacement and that would leave no minority judges on the state Supreme Court trial bench.

This lack of diversity in the judiciary is appalling. A diverse bench gives the public a belief that they are included in the justice system. It promotes the notions of equality and fairness.

The decision regarding who the candidates will be for this year’s five judicial seats will be made by the Chairmen of the Political Parties. This is because in New York State, a judicial candidate for State Supreme Court must be selected by judicial convention delegates who are elected by the various political parties. The delegates then vote to determine the candidates who will run in the November election. The party chairmen control the delegates and since Erie County’s population outweighs the other seven counties, it has the largest number of delegates. Erie County’s Chairmen have the greatest influence on who the candidates will be. When the Democratic and Republican Party Chairmen consort to endorse the same candidate, they ensure that candidate’s election to a 14 year term. Cross endorsing judicial candidates is not new, it has been done many times in the past.

Since the political bosses determine who the State Supreme Court justices will be, we must insist that they cross endorse two minority candidates. Elections are unpredictable. Running a minority candidate on the Democratic line against a minority candidate on the Republican line, along with other non-minority candidates, only serves to bring out minority voters in the various counties in order to help this year’s gubernatorial candidates.Although both minority judicial candidates could win, there is a strong likelihood that both could loose. This process will help the politicians, not the people.

Cross-endorsing two minority candidates out of five is the only way to ensure inclusion and minority representation on the trial bench. All of the minority judges currently serving on all courts outside of Buffalo City Court were cross-endorsed for the seats that they hold today.

This year marks the 50th Anniversary of the Voting Rights Act. If diversity and inclusion evidence justice, when we exercise our right to vote for State Supreme Court Judge, will it be a vote for diversity and inclusion or continued exclusion?

- by George K. Arthur, Joe Davis, and Warren Galloway, Buffalo

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