Academic journal article Albany Law Review

What "Tough on Crime" Looks Like: How George Pataki Transformed the New York State Court of Appeals

Academic journal article Albany Law Review

What "Tough on Crime" Looks Like: How George Pataki Transformed the New York State Court of Appeals

Article excerpt

I. INTRODUCTION

On November 1, 1995, Governor George E. Pataki fired a warning shot at the New York State Court of Appeals. (1) "They are creating their own rules," the state's Chief Executive declared of New York's highest judicial body. (2) "The Court of Appeals has gone too far." (3) Later, he went on to pin his disgust on a specific body of the court's caselaw: rulings that overturned criminal convictions solely because the defendant was denied one or more protections that Pataki considered mere technicalities. (4) "These are just irrational, mindless, procedural safeguards--not for those who are wrongfully charged but for criminals who can get off," the Governor announced. (5) To Pataki, a court comprised of judges chosen solely by his predecessor in the Governor's Mansion, Mario Cuomo, was simply "coddling" criminals, returning dangerous individuals to the streets of New York to prey on more innocent victims. (6)

Certain recent decisions drew particular ire from Pataki on that day. People v. O'Doherty, (7) a 1987 ruling requiring the prosecution to disclose any confessions or identifications to the defense, was "inflexible." (8) People v. Ranghelle, (9) demanding reversal of criminal convictions when a witness's prior statement was not disclosed, presented a terrible outcome in Pataki's opinion. (10) A set of cases guaranteeing a defendant the right to be present for all criminal proceedings perpetrated a gross misconstruction of the law. (11) Not only were the decisions wrong, Pataki argued, but their radical degree of inaccuracy was unprecedented among the entire nation. (12) "Over the course of the past decade, we have seen a network of law evolve from the Court of Appeals that is very different from the rest of the country," he concluded. (13) "Many of these rules are only rules in New York state. The other 49 states have a common-sense system of justice." (14)

It would not be the last time that Pataki took aim at the Court of Appeals. On multiple subsequent occasions, he vigorously condemned the judges whom the more liberal Cuomo brought to the bench. (15) Other high-ranking New York officials soon joined in his fight. New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, for instance, echoed Pataki's derision toward the court's decisions in criminal cases. (16) New York State Attorney General Dennis Vacco did the same. (17) New York City Police Commissioner William J. Bratton publically pronounced that the Court of Appeals created "phenomenal burdens for our police" and was full of judges who were "living off in Disneyworld somewhere." (18) New Yorkers would be better off, Bratton argued, if the state's courts marched in lockstep with the United States Supreme Court's holdings in criminal cases "rather than the screwball system that we have in this state with the screwball Court of Appeals that we have in this state." (19)

During that press conference in 1995, however, Pataki made it clear that he did not plan to influence decision making at the Court of Appeals, despite focusing his remarks on their methods of deciding criminal cases. (20) Instead, he turned his attention to a different branch of the state's government. (21) "[I]t is 'not my intention to criticize the Court of Appeals,"' he said. (22) "It is our intention to solve the problem and the way to solve the problem is to pass [new laws]." (23) Subsequently, Pataki would attempt to do precisely that, even proposing legislation that would prohibit the Court of Appeals from using the New York State Constitution when deciding whether to suppress evidence obtained by police in criminal investigations. (24) Such a measure would have forced the Court of Appeals to follow only federal law, and the United States Supreme Court's interpretations of that law, in deciding these cases. (25) One of Pataki's spokespeople, Michael McKeon, tried promoting the bill as a way to keep the Court of Appeals from "making law" in its criminal decisions. …

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