A new report by Scrutinize and Reinvent Albany reveals that at least 94% of written criminal court decisions in New York are not published. The report, Open Criminal Courts: New York Criminal Trial Decisions Should be Public, calls for criminal court decisions to be published online to improve transparency and public accountability.
A forthcoming bill by Senate Deputy Leader Michael Gianaris, based on the report, will vastly increase the transparency of New York’s criminal courts per coverage in the Albany Times Union.
- Only an estimated 6% of the total written decisions in these courts are published every year.
- In New York, criminal court judges decide whether or not to publish their decisions in criminal cases. Of the judges who published at least one decision a year, the average number of published decisions was two to three decisions a year.
- The number of judges presiding over criminal cases each year is not made available by the court system, meaning that it is not possible to determine how many judges publish zero decisions each year.
- Of the 600 New York criminal court judges who published at least one decision between 2010 and 2022, 20 judges (3%) were responsible for 28% of all published decisions, while 356 judges (59%) published three or fewer decisions.
Senate Deputy Leader Michael Gianaris said, “New Yorkers deserve a court system that is transparent and accountable. The gravity of these decisions warrants greater openness and my new proposal will ensure the rights of everyone in our legal system are protected and judges records are clear for the public to see.”
“While much of the focus in criminal justice reform has been on prosecutors and law enforcement, the role of judges is equally pivotal and often overlooked. Judges are the gatekeepers of justice, interpreting and applying laws that have far-reaching implications on individual liberties and systemic injustices,” said Oded Oren, the Founder and Executive Director of Scrutinize.
Rachael Fauss, Senior Policy Advisor at Reinvent Albany, added: “The public and their elected representatives cannot hold criminal court judges and the judicial branch accountable without seeing their decisions. This lack of transparency not only hampers voters’ ability to assess judicial candidates, but also undermines legislative oversight of criminal law reforms. It’s high time for full disclosure of New York criminal court decisions, making sure that our state’s judiciary is at least as transparent as other branches of government.”
The report, derived from an exhaustive analysis of published criminal court decisions and official pre-trial data, reveals a staggering lack of transparency in New York’s judicial system. This lack of transparency is further corroborated by anecdotal evidence, including from high-profile criminal cases like those involving Harvey Weinstein and former President Trump.
- New York should pass a law to increase transparency by requiring written decisions by criminal court judges to be publicly available online.
- Judges would be able to submit transcripts of oral rulings in lieu of written decisions.
- The new law would mandate publication of decisions when they resolve a legal issue raised in a written motion or decide a pre-trial hearing.
- The new law would also require the Office of Court Administration to make all written criminal court decisions authored in the past 15 years publicly available.
- The Office of Court Administration should immediately begin implementing these policies administratively.
- Susan Lerner, Executive Director of Common Cause New York: “Scrutinize and Reinvent Albany’s report makes it clear that judges are failing to provide critical information to the public about key decisions in their courts. Lawmakers must prioritize legislation that makes public all written judicial decisions and allows greater public access to existing records. New Yorkers deserve transparency and the right to know what’s happening behind closed judicial doors.”
- Krystal Rodriguez, Policy Director of the Data Collaborative for Justice at John Jay College: “Criminal law is a constantly changing landscape. Justice-involved people, the lawyers protecting fundamental rights, legislative bodies, community-based advocates, and the public are entitled to a roadmap. Written decisions reveal how courts are upholding their judicial obligations and set clear expectations for the justice-involved, their lawyers, and other judges presiding over similar matters. The court can benefit from consistency in legal reasoning, and the public will benefit from the transparency and accountability afforded by making these decisions widely available. Setting a reasonable expectation of publishing written decisions can reduce the disparities and unpredictability of common court decisions. It demystifies the court process and allows researchers to better report on court trends and outcomes.”
- Peter Martin, Director of Judicial Accountability at Center for Community Alternatives: “The public has a right to know what all its public servants are doing, including judges. The fact that New York’s criminal court judges choose to keep the overwhelming majority of their decisions out of public access means New York’s judges choose secrecy over transparency day after day. This new report by Scrutinize and Reinvent Albany shines an important light into the darkness created by our judges, and its recommendations are the necessary next steps to making sure that lawyers, legislators, and regular members of the public can see what’s going on in our courts.”
- Zoë Adel Perry, Director of Criminal Legal Strategy at Envision Freedom Fund: “Each year, judges decide thousands of cases that have lasting and often life changing impacts on New Yorkers’ lives. Yet for too long, the scale that balances the power afforded to them and the transparency needed to hold them accountable has been wildly out of balance. This report sheds much-needed light on some of the transparency issues plaguing New York’s judiciary that often stand in the way of meaningful accountability. We fully support the recommendations offered in this report to improve public access to judicial data and strongly urge the legislature to adopt these pragmatic and long overdue changes.”
- Darren Mack, co-Director of Freedom Agenda, a project of the Urban Justice Center: “New York’s courts, like Rikers Island, live largely out of sight and out of mind for most New Yorkers. And when the people don’t know what’s going on, there can be no accountability. Every day, judges across NYC, with no transparency or accountability to the public, make hundreds of decisions that can mean life or death for our neighbors. Freedom Agenda supports the recommendations in this report that will shine more of a light on those decisions. Just like with Rikers Island, the more New Yorkers begin to see how things work inside our courtrooms, the more we will all understand what needs to change, and how.”
Click here to view the report on Scrutinize’s website.
Click here or below to view the full report as a PDF.