District attorneys file legal challenge to oversight commission

Gazette file photo

The New York State Court of Appeals

The professional organization for public prosecutors in New York filed a preliminary injunction on Monday in an attempt to block the creation of a Commission on Prosecutorial Conduct.

The District Attorneys Association of New York (DAASNY) has been vocal in its opposition to the legislation (S.1190/A.781) that will amend Article 15-A of the Judiciary Law and create the state’s first-ever Commission on Prosecutorial Conduct.

Article 15-A was signed into law last August despite the concerns and objections of the district attorneys who warned Gov. Andrew Cuomo they would be challenging the law on the grounds it is unconstitutional.

An amendment to the law signed by the governor last week was passed by the Legislature in January, but did not go far enough to alleviate the concerns the district attorneys.

The Commission on Prosecutorial Conduct was created to review and investigate alleged prosecutorial misconduct, but is part of Cuomo’s overarching goal to reform New York’s criminal justice system.

David Soares, president of DAASNY, says the law does not address the constitutional concerns and flaws identified by his organization. According to prosecutors, this law would be infringing on the independence of district attorneys and it violates the Separation of Powers Doctrine.

“The law threatens the independence of district attorneys, alters the role of our judiciary and intrudes into law enforcement’s performance of its duties while simultaneously violating the due process rights of prosecutors,” Soares said.

DAASNY President David Soares

The preliminary injunction motion identifies seven elements of the bill that DAASNY claims are unconstitutional. According to DAASNY, the creation of the Commission on Prosecutorial Conduct would impair the independence and core functions of elected district attorneys by allowing the commission to interfere with prosecutions and prosecutorial decision-making.

This legislation creates a commission with administrative and executive duties that operates outside of what DAASNY considers to be the clear confines of the State Constitution’s civil department system. DAASNY also feels that this “hybrid political commission” violates the Separation of Powers Doctrine.

The Commission on Prosecutorial Conduct would expand the Chief Judge’s powers and compel the Chief Judge and the presiding justices of the Appellate Division to perform non-judicial tasks that are not delegated to them in the State Constitution.

The cornerstone of the injunction by DAASNY focuses on district attorneys and assistant district attorneys being subjected to discipline without clear governing standards and without a right to appeal to the Court of Appeals, the state’s highest court, which DAASNY feels is in contravention of their due process and equal protection rights.

Cuomo anticipated in his March 27 memorandum that the legal challenge against Article 15-A would be coming from the prosecutors across New York who will be subject to oversight by the Commission. Nevertheless, Cuomo signed the bill even after DAASNY urged him to veto the legislation last week.

“Despite my desire for a bill strong-suited for the legal challenges it will surely confront, my commitment to the creation of this Commission and the promise it brings for a more transparent and just criminal justice system remains unshaken,” Cuomo wrote in the bill’s approval memo.

DAASNY has also filed an amended complaint which seeks to permanently strike down and declare unconstitutional Article 15-A, the law that created the Commission on Prosecutorial Conduct. While DAASNY strongly opposes the Commission, they have stated that they welcome the opportunity to improve the disciplinary system for all those who practice law without offending New York state’s Constitution.