Report: Make Judges’ Decisions Available Publicly
A good government group is pushing the state Legislature to require more public access to judges’ criminal court decisions.
A recent report by Scrutinize and Reinvent Albany showed more than 90% of written criminal court decisions in New York are not published in a way that most New Yorkers can access. The groups’ 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.
Among the types of decisions the groups want to see made more available are the following:
• Suppression: Evaluating the constitutionality of police conduct to determine the admissibility of evidence.
• Dismissal: Determining if the evidence presented to the grand jury supports felony charges.
• Prosecutorial Misconduct: Ruling whether a prosecutor withheld exculpatory evidence.
• Discovery/Speedy Trial: Determining whether evidence was provided to the defense in a timely manner.
• Warrants: Assessing if evidence collection violated the accused person’s privacy due to an overly-broad warrant.
• Protective Orders: Deciding on the prosecutor’s right to withhold evidence from the defense.
Reinvent Albany’s report found an estimated 6% of the total written decisions in these courts are published every year. The decision to publish a decision or not is decided by judges. The number of judges presiding over criminal cases each year is not made available by the state court system, meaning it is not possible to determine how many judges publish no 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.
“The public and their elected representatives cannot hold criminal court judges and the judicial branch accountable without seeing their decisions,” said Rachael Fauss, senior policy advisor at Reinvent Albany. “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.”
State Sen. Michael Gianaris, D-Astoria and Senate majority leader, told the Albany Times Union he plans to introduce legislation that will increase transparency in the state’s criminal courts. Reinvent Albany, however, is calling on the state Office of Court Administration to immediately implement several policies administratively, including requiring written decisions by criminal court judges to be publicly available online; allow judges to submit transcripts of oral rulings in lieu of written decisions; mandate publication of decisions when they resolve a legal issue raised in a written motion or decide a pre-trial hearing; and require the Office of Court Administration to make all written criminal court decisions authored in the past 15 years publicly available.
“New Yorkers deserve a court system that is transparent and accountable,” Gianaris said. “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.”