NY Court of Appeals Hearing More Criminal Cases under Judge Lippman

The New York Law Journal reported today that the Court of Appeals,(NY’s highest court), has been accepting more criminal cases for argument than it has in the past twenty years. This increase in opening the court up to criminal defendants was encouraged by and attributed to the Court’s new chief Judge Jonathan Lippman. This is a pleasant surprise to say the least. I was notpleased when Lippman was named to this prestigious position because he had never presided over a trial as a judge and had not ever served as an appellate judge. He was a career administrator. To make him one of the 9 justices of the Court and then Chief Judge besides, was to me the essence (smell? odor? ) of patronage and just the latest in the series of blunders by Governor David Patterson. And when Lippman promised in his speech at his swearing in to focus on increasing access to the Court, particularly in the field of criminal justice, I thought it was just lip service to the crowd of skeptical lawyers. Well, whaddaya know, he kept his promise. I know this sounds like a minor, esoteric little issue but it is not. What’s been happening in the court is that Governor Pataki packed it with upstate conservatives who greatly reduced the number of cases they heard in general and drastically reduced the number of leaves(permissions) of criminal cases that were granted. The Court of Appeals was following the lead of George W. Bush’s US Supreme Court. That ultra conservative bench accept so few cases that its caseload is down to 1960’s level. It has eviscerated the writ of habeus corpus and grants certiorari (permission) in only a handful of criminal cases each term. This practice has greatly reduced the constitutional rights of those accused of crimes. So when Pataki and his court followed suit, criminal defendants in NY were left without a chance to have the highest court in the State hear their issues. Just to put this in perspective, before Pataki began packing the court with his crowd, leave to appeal was granted in about 3% of all criminal appeals. The Pataki court reduced that to about 1.5-1.8% Just about cut it in half. This year under Lippman, leave was granted at 3% again. So in short order Lippman reversed the tightening trend. It’s a welcome sign that maybe as an administrator Lippman understands what the statistics mean and can spotlight what needs to be corrected. It’s also an important message for the populace to understand that whoever is at the head of the government can shape the law of the land by the justices they appoint to the highest courts of their jurisdiction. Here’s a link to the NYLJ story on the issue:

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