Criminal justice advocates are right: The process to discipline New York lawyers is slow and secretive, and comprehensive reform is overdue.
District attorneys welcome changes to improve oversight of all New York’s more than 177,000 licensed attorneys. But a bill now awaiting the signature of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo would leave this broken system in place for most lawyers and create a costly, duplicative commission exclusively to oversee only district attorneys. It is wrongheaded.
The Assembly and Senate passed no meaningful ethics reforms — in the wake of a drumbeat of corruption convictions from within their own ranks — during this year’s session. Most recently, former Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos of Rockville Centre and former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver of Manhattan were convicted of federal corruption charges. It is especially troubling that lawmakers in Albany have rushed through this legislation to investigate and discipline only those with the authority to prosecute their own misdeeds.
In the bill, Senate and Assembly leaders give themselves the constitutionally questionable power to appoint a majority of the commissioners who would discipline or even seek removal of a district attorney who might be investigating any of them.
Moreover, the legislation would create an expensive bureaucracy for state taxpayers, and counties would face the potentially exorbitant cost of defending prosecutors against frivolous allegations before two overlapping disciplinary bodies with jurisdiction. All of this would distract prosecutors from their important work, seeking justice for victims and keeping our communities safe.
District attorneys have great power in our criminal justice system, and with that comes an obligation to adhere to the highest legal and ethical standards. We should be subject to vigorous, fair and independent oversight. But establishing a commission appointed in part by Albany politicians exclusively to police district attorneys in New York’s 62 counties, while leaving the current flawed system in place for crooked Wall Street lawyers, client-scamming real estate attorneys, and corruption-enabling government lawyers is a mistake.
Two statewide panels of experts have examined attorney discipline and rejected the establishment of a new commission, instead proposing broad reforms to the existing grievance process.
In 2015, the Statewide Commission on Attorney Discipline, appointed by then-Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman, recommended standardized procedures and rules, increased transparency, and additional resources to improve efficiency and accountability. And last year, the New York State Justice Task Force, appointed by Chief Judge Janet DiFiore, recommended specialized training in criminal law for grievance committee members and the review of court decisions for findings of prosecutorial misconduct or ineffective assistance of counsel, among other reforms.
At the Nassau County district attorney’s office, we’ve successfully prosecuted more than 20 attorneys in recent years on charges that they abused their clients’ trust and broke the law. We need to fix New York’s attorney disciplinary process, not just for prosecutors, but for all lawyers who violate their ethical obligations.
I encourage Gov. Cuomo to veto this bill, and to then urge the State Legislature to do better.
Madeline Singas is Nassau County district attorney.