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St. John’s panel examines lack of judicial diversity

The panel was coordinated by state Sen. Malcolm Smith (D-St. Albans) and was the second in a statewide series aimed at developing a diverse judicial body in New York state, given that Gov. Eliot Spitzer will make three appointments to the state Court of Appeals in his first 18 months in office, St. John's said.John D. Feerick, the Sidney C. Norris chairman of Law in Public Service at Fordham University, spoke about the results of a poll of 1,000 voters. "All over the state of New York citizens and voters expressed concern about the lack of diversity in the judiciary. Members of minority groups and the poor felt they were not treated fairly by the judiciary in our state," he said.Minorities account for about 40 percent of New York state's population, U.S. Census data show, while New York City is closer to 50 percent. Queens County is about 60 percent minority.The daylong program featured expert testimony from academia, the bench, the state bar association and the court system, including State Supreme Court Judge Russell T. Eng, the first Asian American to hold the title in the history of the state, and St. John's law professor Leonard Baynes, director of the university's Ronald H. Brown Center for Civil Rights and Economic Development.Speakers suggested improvements including voter information guides, going to an appointment rather than election system for judges, raising judicial salaries, increasing the flexibility of law school admissions, creating mentoring programs and expanding outreach into minority communities."In order to become a judge, you have to first become a lawyer," said Baynes. But to illustrate the difficulty of cultivating minority judges he cited a battery of statistics about the decline in minorities enrolling in law schools nationwide, including a 20 percent slide in blacks and a 47 percent drop in admissions among Puerto Rican students between 2000 and 2005.Two minority groups Baynes did not address were women and Asian Americans, state Sen. Toby Stavisky (D-Flushing) pointed out.Eng, who sits in Queens County Supreme Court, said "Asian Americans are different than other minorities. Their incomes tend to be higher. They comprise about 12 percent of the population. Asian Americans are present in large numbers in law schools," he said. "Out of 1,216 constitutional judges in New York state, only 12 are Asian American, or nine-tenths of 1 percent."As for the root of the discrepancy, Eng called it the "invisibility of Asian Americans" but stressed that "the intelligence, the talent and the will are there."The statistics for women in the judiciary are better but still not good, said Queens State Supreme Court Justice Sheri Roman. "Women constitute approximately 29 percent of the judiciary in New York state, but women comprise approximately 50 percent of law school graduates," she said, and suggested outreach and mentoring programs to encourage women to consider the career path.If there was a consensus, Eng's words summed it up: "Underrepresentation is one thing, nonrepresentation is another."Reach reporter Alex Christodoulides by e-mail at news@timesledger.com or by phone at 718-229-0300, Ext. 155.

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