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NYC Charter should let us judge judges

Even if Mayor Adams’ appointment of a Charter Revision Commission was mainly a clever political chess move meant to block the City Council from expanding their own power, it still presents an opportunity to affect meaningful change to make the city better and safer. The Charter Commission staff just released its initial policy recommendations, but the best thing they can do is to amend the City Charter in a way that reflects the actual needs and concerns of everyday New Yorkers.

What are most New Yorkers concerned about? Look at any poll and it’s clear — crime and quality of life. They want things to feel less chaotic. New Yorkers are sick and tired of judges who continually let career criminals loose regardless of their prior record, regardless of their specific actions, regardless of who they hurt or the damage they cause. 

There is example after example of judges who refuse to do their jobs, refuse to protect the public. Their extreme ideology trumps everything. That has led to a shoplifting epidemic. It has led to an endless cycle of mentally ill people released back onto the streets and subways to continue to terrorize us all. And it has helped create a very strong perception that our city is unsafe. That hurts business growth. It hurts tourism. It hurts retail sales. It hurts taxpayer retention and more.

The Charter Commission could propose a ballot measure to rein in judges whose decisions are out of tune with the views and the needs of the people: allow voters to trigger a hearing to determine whether the mayor should recommend the governor and state Senate recall certain judges.

The commission would choose a percentage — likely between 10% to 20% — of the number of voters who participated in the most recent judicial election to sign and file a petition authorizing a hearing to determine whether the mayor should refer a particular judge to the state for recall. If the judge is then recommended for recall by the governor and removed by the Senate, a special election is held to fill the vacancy. If the removed judge was a mayoral appointee, the mayor appoints someone new. The removed judge would also then be disqualified from ever serving on the bench in New York again. 

The state Constitution does not allow for recall of state or local judges. There have been several bills in Albany over the years to create a direct recall mechanism in New York but none have succeeded. Doing so would require amending the Constitution — which the mayor’s charter commission has no purview over. 

However, the state Municipal Home Rule law lays out the powers that local governments have to adopt and amend laws. Although it specifically prohibits the city from passing any law that supersedes a state statute relating to the courts, it does allow local governments to adopt or amend local laws regarding a number of subjects so long as they are not inconsistent with state laws. By triggering a hearing rather than recall, this proposal is consistent with state law.

The most specific benefit of the idea is removing bad judges from the bench and keeping them off forever. But even if a judge isn’t ultimately removed, the risk of removal and public humiliation will force the vast majority of judges to finally start balancing their own ideology with the views and needs of the public. 

Once a few judges face potential recall, that will impact the thinking of virtually every judge in the system and help deter decisions that are egregiously out of line with both common sense and basic public safety.

Judges are human beings. Human beings hate shame, stigma and humiliation. They will go to incredible lengths to avoid it. When judges can behave without any real scrutiny, accountability or consequences, some will let virtually every criminal loose. We see that too often. But when they’re under a public microscope, most will start behaving more responsibly — and those that do not could now be removed for life.

Of course, direct voter recall of extremely bad judges would be even better. The far left’s grip on Albany — and the political parties’ own judicial patronage machine — means that’s not going to happen anytime soon. But the voters of New York City can take matters into their own hands and change a judicial culture that all too often seems completely indifferent to the needs of the people.

If we want a safer city, if we want a better city, it’s up to us to make it happen. That starts with the Charter Commission deciding they’re sick of a revolving door of criminals set free to strike again and again — and doing something about it.

Tusk is a venture capitalist and political strategist who runs the Mobile Voting Project.


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