A federal appeals court deferred action Tuesday on New York City's request to delay court-ordered reforms of NYPD stop-and-frisk practices, as panel members questioned the ruling but wrestled with mayoral front-runner Bill de Blasio's support for it.
"There is indeed a specter haunting this application and that is the specter of the mayoral election," said Judge Jose Cabranes, who presided over the contentious and lengthy 21/2-hour argument at the Second U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
"Are we going to be in a situation that within a relatively few weeks, your marching orders are going to change?" Judge Barrington Parker, another panel member, asked city lawyers.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg and NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly have criticized Manhattan U.S. District Judge Shira Scheindlin's August ruling that found a pattern of NYPD stops unfairly targeting minorities and lacking the "reasonable suspicion" required by the Constitution.
Scheindlin named a former city official as a court monitor to consult with police and community stakeholders on reforms in training, supervision and discipline, and mandated a pilot project using body-worn cameras to record street encounters.
The appeal is expected to be heard in March. City and police union lawyers argued that judges should stay the ruling because it misstated the law, confused officers and had a "chilling effect" on "proactive" policing that could compromise public safety.
But a lawyer for city Public Advocate de Blasio, who filed a friend of the court brief, told the judges his client wanted the monitor to move forward on developing reforms without delay.
"It's a procedure that's in the public interest," said lawyer John Siegal.
The judges seemed divided. Judge John Walker, a Reagan judicial nominee, complained Scheindlin's intervention reminded him of a desegregation order addressed to "a George Wallace standing on the schoolhouse steps."
"Implicit is the idea that the police are acting in total bad faith," he said.
Parker, the only African-American on the panel, expressed impatience with arguments that the ruling made policing more difficult, telling one lawyer that if Scheindlin was right, the NYPD was violating the constitutional rights of thousands of citizens. "Adhering to constitutional rules might complicate the lives of police officers," he said. "But that's not what we're all about here."
Cabranes seemed to be in the middle. He wondered whether Scheindlin -- whose concern about stop-and-frisk practices date back to 1990s litigation -- improperly had the latest suits assigned to her. He peppered the lawyers with questions about whether her order overreached.
"The public advocate," he asked Siegal sarcastically, "is dying to have the New York City Police Department run by the U.S. District Court?"
He questioned the city's claim that reform discussions ordered by Scheindlin will do "irreparable harm" if they are not stayed.
The city, Cabranes said, moved at a "snail's pace" since August, failing to seek an expedited schedule for the case and raising doubt about whether there was harm to public safety or whether the city might prefer to punt the issue to a new mayor.
"The city has been speaking out of two sides of its mouth," he said. "It has been castigating [Scheindlin] publicly while pursuing this appeal at a glacial pace . . . dragging its feet, and dragging its feet deliberately."