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Landmark Criminal Justice Reform Statute

November 2021

On June 16, 2021, New York Governor Cuomo signed a bill that was the culmination of the firm’s years-long battle defending the constitutionality of a prior and related criminal justice reform statute.  The background of the matter goes back to the summer of 2018,  when supermajorities of the Legislature passed Article 15-A of the Judiciary Law.  The landmark statute created a watchdog commission to investigate and censure professional ethical violations by state prosecutors.

The law was challenged by the District Attorneys Association of the State of New York.  Because the state attorney general was recused from defending the law as it normally would, Quinn Emanuel represented New York State Assembly Speaker Carl E. Heastie, effectively representing the interest of the state as a whole.  In January 2020, Quinn Emanuel obtained a trial court order rejecting seven out of eight of the prosecutors’ constitutional arguments for invalidating the law.  While the court found that elements of the statute’s appellate review procedures violated certain technical requirements of the state constitution’s judiciary provisions, it upheld the constitutionality of the commission itself and its role as a prosecutorial watchdog against any separation-of-powers challenge.  As a result, the legislature was in the position to pass an amendment curing the identified technical issues and allowing the law to proceed, which it did in June.

Under the now-operative text of Article 15-A, the commission has powers to investigate and to censure (and even recommend removal of) prosecutors who engage in wrongful conduct, such as when they wrongfully conceal exculpatory evidence, knowingly pursue convictions of innocent defendants, or violate other standards of professional ethics.  Criminal justice reform advocates, criminal law professors, and many others view the commission as a groundbreaking step toward reducing the rate of wrongful convictions, addressing racial bias in charging and sentencing, and otherwise making the criminal justice system more fair.  California and other states have viewed Article 15-A as a bellwether for future reform efforts outside of New York, and may well model their own statutes and commissions after New York’s example.