ALBANY — The state Senate passed a package of bills Tuesday to strengthen oversight and transparency for the state’s judicial branch.
The package of six bills includes measures that would require the public online posting of judges’ annual financial disclosures, same as state lawmakers are required to do. Another bill would also close a loophole and would require lobbyists to disclose spending related to state Senate-confirmed judicial appointments. Lobbyists currently are required to disclose activities related to promoting and opposing legislation.
“If someone is going to spend thousands of dollars trying to influence the confirmation of a nominee, the public has a right to know where that money is coming from and why it’s being spent,” said state Senate Majority Deputy Leader Michael Gianaris. “The judiciary is an independent branch of government, we all respect that, but we also have to respect the checks and balances that are required. The bills I sponsored all have one thing in common and that is to shed light and let the public know what is going on as it relates to the judicial branch.”
The move comes at a time of increased scrutiny on the U.S. Supreme Court. In recent months, news reports have detailed large donations and gifts to members of the court and have led to ethics hearings by the Senate Judiciary Committee in Washington D.C..
State Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, D-Yonkers, said the new legislation addresses crucial judicial oversight needed in the state.
“We’ve seen how, at every level of government – whether in our own state, all the way up to the Supreme Court – such power must be coupled with strict accountability,” she said. “With this legislative package that we’re doing today, we’re continuing to empower our judicial branch to discharge their duties while also ensuring that no one is above the law.”
This year’s state budget agreement included further rollbacks of the state’s bail reform laws to allow judges more discretion on whether to set bail, a move that was fiercely opposed by progressive Democrats.
In response, included in the package of bills passed by the state Senate Tuesday was a bill to empower the Commission on Judicial Conduct to monitor and investigate alleged bias in the court system in matters of pretrial release or detention.
“This is a very simple bill that would allow the data already collected to be transmitted specifically to the Commission on Judicial Conduct, so they would be able to review and evaluate to see if there are instances of bias in relation to the criminal justice system,” said state Sen. Jamaal Bailey, D-Bronx, the sponsor of the bill. “If there are biases in the law, if certain individuals are being discriminated against, we have a duty to make sure that we’re passing laws to allow the Commission on Judicial Conduct to review that data.”
Another bill would require the Chief Administrator of the Courts to require and provide annual training regarding bail, recognizance and commitment procedures.
The bills now head to the state Assembly for passage before the end of the legislative session on June 8.