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Court: “Justice Center” lacks power to prosecute; pols overstepped

ALBANY — For the third time this year, a state court has ruled that a special agency Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo created to prosecute cases involving abuse of the disabled and others actually lacks the legal authority to prosecute anyone.

The rulings, handed down by three different state Supreme Court justices, essentially say the governor and state legislators overstepped their authority in 2013 when they empowered the Justice Center, an agency created in the wake of abuse scandals.

“It’s a profoundly flawed law. It was an incredible overreach,” said Terry Kindlon, an assistant public defender in Albany County who has gotten three dismissals of Justice Center cases based on constitutional grounds. “The right to criminal prosecution has been rooted in the deepest elements of our constitutional government. You can’t just pass this incredible power to just anybody.”

Judges have agreed.

The state constitution requires that cases be brought by elected prosecutors — such as a local district attorney or the state attorney general — the judges have said. The right to prosecute, they said, can’t simply be conveyed to a state agency such as the Justice Center or, say, the Department of Motor Vehicles.

“The court is therefore constrained to find that the Justice Center does not have authority to prosecute this case,” Justice Roger McDonough of Supreme Court, Albany County, wrote last month in dismissing the charges against an Schenectady employee of an addiction-treatment center accused of abusing a treatment resident.

Earlier this year, Justice Thomas Breslin, also of Supreme Court, Albany County, dismissed a similar case, saying “the Justice Center did not have authority to prosecute this case” unless it was working under the direct supervision of an elected prosecutor.

A spokeswoman for the Justice Center said it will appeal the decisions. Christine Buttigieg contended the agency’s special prosecutor is “entirely constitutional”and claimed that has been affirmed by the state Court of Appeals, New York’s highest court. But the Court of Appeals ruling handed down in 2016 dealt with only the ability to bring Justice Center cases to local courts and not with the center’s underlying authority to prosecute cases at all.

According to the Associated Press, the center has overseen 97 prosecutions by itself without help from a local or state prosecutor. Many of those cases could be reopened if the recent court decisions stand.

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