The Office of Court Administration cashiered Acting Justice Efrain Alvarado in January as the administrative judge for felony cases in the Bronx. Alvarado’s dismissal was abrupt and came amid signs that it was aimed at heading off negative publicity about felony backlogs at the Bronx Hall of Justice.
As recently as last October, the top court officials announced that Alvarado would continue to remain in charge of felony cases once OCA’s doomed court merger experiment was dismantled and the pre-2004 two-court system was restored. Alvarado was the second administrative judge who had headed the merged Bronx court to be unceremoniously sacked.
Acting Justice John P. Collins, who was the administrative judge of the criminal side of the Bronx Supreme Court when the merger began, was relieved of his administrative duties shortly before Easter in 2009. According to a court insider, Collins learned that he was being replaced the Thursday before Good Friday when a clerk told him that he had received instructions to circulate a notice asking judges to apply for Collins’ job as head of the then-merged court.
In April 2012, OCA announced it was dismantling the merged court, which for years had struggled with a spiraling backlog of felony cases. Alvarado was put in charge of the planning for the transition, and in October, when the two-tier system was revived, he was designated to continue as the administrative judge for felonies in the Bronx. Starting Oct. 9, misdemeanor cases once again were handled in the Bronx branch of the New York City Criminal Court as they had been before November 2004 (Link to NY Law Journal article).
In mid-January, after a New York Times reporter had visited the Bronx courthouse over the course of two months gathering material an article about the Bronx court, OCA announced yet another major plan to attack the felony backlog. Justice Patricia M. Di Mango, a hardnosed-judge adept at twisting arms to get pleas, would be brought in from the Brooklyn, and ten or more judges would be imported from other jurisdictions to try old cases that Di Mango was unable to settle. Alvarado was reassigned to a trial part, and Justice Douglas E. McKeon, the administrative judge for civil cases in Bronx Supreme Court had his portfolio expanded to include the criminal half of the court (Link to NY Law Journal article).
By that time, there were 931 felony cases which had been pending in the Bronx for two years or longer, and 73 percent of its felony caseload had been pending longer than the six-month benchmark set by OCA.
According to a source with first hand knowledge, New York Times reporter William Glaberson was spotted on numerous occasions in the courthouse during October and November. “That’s what prompted the sudden announcement of the new plan and Alvarado’s demotion,” the source said.
Chief Administrative Judge A. Gail Prudenti said in an interview, that she had been long aware of the problem with felony cases in the Bronx. “Mr. Glaberson was one of many, including prosecutors and defense lawyers, who brought the issue to our attention,” Prudenti said.
“This problem had been going on too long, and there had been no positive results,” Prudenti said. “The chief judge and I both felt it was incumbent upon us to develop an intense case management system to address the problem. Though “there have been bumps along the road,” Prudenti expressed confidence that in “three to four months, we’ll see progress and success in clearing the backlog.”
To date Di Mango has settled more than100 cases that have been pending two years or longer, Prudenti confirmed. In addition, the three upstaters started three trials last week. The three are Albany Justices Joseph Teresi and Thomas Breslin and Acting Supreme Court Justice John Brunetti who sits in Syracuse.
Alvarado Seen as Fall Guy
The changes introduced in January were seen by a number of judges as insulting, misguided and an effort to make Alvarado the fall guy for the brass at OCA, according to several sources with close connections to the court.
With regard to Alvarado’s abrupt dismissal, one described the prevailing sense at the courthouse as “somebody had to be executed.” Another said, “Beaver Street wasn’t going to take the heat, so it had to be someone from the Bronx.” OCA’s main office is located on Beaver Street in lower Manhattan.
A third source said the Bronx criminal bench is bristling at OCA’s description to the press of the upstate judges as a “SWAT team” being imported into the Bronx to tame the backlog because “it does not reflect well on the people there.”
Public Protest from Alvarado’s Wife
The dismissal of Alvarado brought a highly unusual public protest from his wife, Mary Ann Byrnes-Alvarado, who described him as being unfairly “fired” in a letter-to-the-editor published in early February in the weekly community newspaper, the Bronx Times Reporter. Calling the merger a “grievous wrong done to Bronx County,” Byrnes-Alvarado wrote, “it would have been far more practical and honorable” to have given her husband the personnel needed to staff four additional courtrooms and “see what a full time administrator with proven managerial skills could have done if both his hands were not tied behind his back by OCA.” Alvarado did not respond to several requests for comment.
The sources said that Byrnes-Alvarado had a good point. From the outset of the merger, OCA officials have described a shortage of judges as a key problem. The merged court started out with 46 judges, but that number fell to a nadir of 40 judges in 2008, according to a report issued by the New York City Bar Association (New York Law Journal, June 11, 2009). When the latest plan was unveiled in January, OCA reported that it had 31 judges in the Bronx assigned to handle felonies and 14 for misdemeanors.
The number of judges available to handle felonies increased with the arrival of the first three upstaters last week. But, the sources said the increase was in large part a mirage. The reason, they said, is that in the weeks leading up their arrival, shortages of court clerks and court officers had resulted in the shuttering of three judges’ courtrooms. To address that problem, eight court officers were shifted from a centralized “special response team” to coincide with the new arrivals. But, a source said, that despite the reinforcements, two of the judges remained without courtrooms last week because two of the newcomers had been assigned to them.
Prudenti acknowledged that two judges may not have had access to their courtrooms last week, but said that, starting today, her “understanding is that the situation has been rectified.”
“All judges at the Bronx Hall of Justice, including the upstaters, now have courtrooms and staff,” she added.
OCA’s aim, she added, is to open up more courtrooms to accommodate at least five volunteer at a time, and possibly as many as 10. OCA has identified unused courtrooms both at the Hall of Justice and at the main courthouse at 851 Grand Concourse where civil case are heard, she said. Additional unused space has been found at both locations that could be converted into “makeshift courtrooms,” she said.