EDITORIAL: Hold judges more accountable

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Independence, accountability and transparency.

As citizens, we must be able to trust the people we put in positions of power. Yet when it comes to disciplining judges for unethical behavior or misconduct, we let them slip away without the degree of public scrutiny and accountability to which the individuals who wield such authority over us should be held.

A new bill sponsored by Sen. Brad Hoylman-Sigal, chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, would change that by making judges who violate their oaths face the consequences of their actions by beefing up the authority of the watchdog commission that oversees them.

Under a draft of the bill, as reported by the Queens Daily Eagle, the legislation would require that any investigation opened by the state Commission on Judicial Conduct into a judge be made public. Right now, the commission isn’t required to make public any investigation unless it substantiates the allegations.

The legislation also would require that any judge subject to investigation file a written response to the allegations and that that written response be made public.

And to ensure judges are held accountable even after they leave office, the commission would be given the authority to continue investigations even after judges retire or resign.

Under the existing practices, if judges retire, the investigation ends and the public never finds out what, if anything, they might be under investigation for.

If judges can escape accountability simply by stepping down, how is that holding them accountable? Doesn’t the public have a right to know what kind of behavior these judges were engaged in that compelled them to leave office?

The legislation was in the works before former state Chief Judge Janet DiFiore announced her resignation in July under a cloud of ethical questions. But under existing judicial law, her resignation allowed her to escape any potential consequences for her actions.

“Inasmuch as Chief Judge DiFiore resigned from office on August 31, 2022, and Section 47 of the Judiciary Law strictly limits the Commission’s jurisdiction when a judge resigns, the matter against the former Chief Judge has been closed, subject to being resumed should she ever return to judicial office,” commission attorney Robert Tembeckjian wrote in a letter.

This bill would ensure future judges could not escape so easily.

We’ve said this a million times before: It’s vital to the operation of our government system that the public be able to trust the people in authority.

But the people can’t do that if the system is designed to shield unethical or corrupt public officials from accountability through secret proceedings and investigations that are discontinued and sealed when the official calls it quits.

This legislation is an attempt to restore and secure a level of public trust in our judicial system that’s currently lacking.

Categories: Editorial, Opinion

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