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Top Rikers Judge Got a Promotion from New York Democrats After Years of Persecuting Parolees
By rewarding judges who take a punitive approach toward criminal defendants, the legislature further incentivizes others to do the same.
On Monday, Anthony Scott became the 14th person to die in city custody this year after he succumbed to injuries from an attempted suicide. Scott was arraigned last Friday in Manhattan Criminal Court and held on bail. Unable to pay and facing transfer to Rikers Island, he tried to hang himself in a holding cell at the courthouse. One can hardly blame Scott if he feared meeting a worse fate on Rikers. A work stoppage among corrections officers has led to savage conditions within the jail complex: extreme overcrowding, cells filled with human excrement, outbreaks of disease, and the denial of medical care. The same day Scott hanged himself, Victor Mercado became the 13th person to perish on the island this year after he developed COVID-19 while incarcerated.
Despite the barbarity of these circumstances, Mayor Bill De Blasio and Governor Kathy Hochul have rejected calls to use all the tools at their disposal to reduce the inmate population. Their callousness is certainly appalling, but they aren’t the ones with the greatest power to defuse the crisis. That would be the judges presiding over the city’s criminal courts, whose actions truly shock the conscience:
Large reductions in the number of people held in city jails would instead depend on a key set of actors who have so far faced little scrutiny: New York City judges. Around 80% of the city’s jail population is composed of people…locked up as they wait for trial because judges have decided to detain them or, more frequently, set bails they can’t afford…But rather than working to alleviate crowding within Rikers and other city jails, court data shows judges are detaining an increasing number of people before their trials.
It’s the latest grisly installment of a two-year campaign waged by right-wing elements within the judiciary and the city’s district attorney’s offices to undermine reforms to New York’s bail system. In 2019, the state introduced new limits on the use of cash bail for a wide variety of offenses in order the reduce the number of people in pretrial detention. The policy was vigorously opposed by law enforcement, including judges and career prosecutors who balked at restrictions on their wide discretion. After failing to block the reform package in the legislature, this municipal deep state began working to nullify its practical impact.
The elected branches of government should have crushed this judicial revolt the moment it appeared by impeaching and removing judges who attempted to subvert their legitimate prerogatives. This would have sent a message that a needlessly punitive attitude on the bench would be an impediment to judges’ professional advancement. But not only has the legislature failed to rein in the worst offenders, it’s continued to promote reactionary judges to prestigious sinecures. This is an unambiguous signal that the people fueling the crisis on Rikers Island can expect rewards for throwing the book at poor defendants, no matter how convincingly legislators perform their outrage.
In May, former governor Andrew Cuomo nominated Rhonda Ziomaida Tomlinson to the New York Court of Claims, the branch of the judiciary that hears civil lawsuits against the state. Tomlinson was also to be designated as an acting judge on the New York Supreme Court, which is the name given to the division that houses trial judges for a variety of civil and criminal matters. Under the state constitution, the number of Supreme Court judges is limited by a population-based formula that is inadequate for the quantity of litigation in New York. For this reason, judges on other courts are often designated as “acting” Supreme Court judges so they can pull double duty. Tomlinson was confirmed to both positions in June.
Her elevation to the state bench has garnered virtually no press attention, which is remarkable given the coverage she’s received before. Prior to her nomination to the Court of Claims, Tomlinson was the Chief Administrative Law Judge on Rikers Island. ALJs are employees of the Department of Corrections whose job is to assess whether people under community supervision have violated the terms of their parole, and whether they should return to jail as a result. As head ALJ, Tomlinson was the chief executive of this apparatus and supervised all other ALJs on Rikers.
An investigation by Gothamist in early 2019 found that not only did Tomlinson exert enormous pressure on ALJs to lock up as many people as possible for technical parole violations, the number of people being reincarcerated was so high it was threatening the city’s plan to close Rikers Island along the timeline it previously set for itself:
“According to a current official on Rikers Island with first-hand knowledge of the parole proceedings, ALJs are afraid of setting parolees free for fear of crossing their superior, Rhonda Tomlinson, the Chief Administrative Law Judge at the Rikers Island Judicial Center, where the hearings are held.
‘Things changed drastically’ when Tomlinson was made Chief Judge at Rikers in 2017, the official told Gothamist. ‘She's stripped the judges of their independence and discretion and biased the revocation system in favor of re-incarceration. Everyone feels the pressure.”
Lorraine C. McEvilley, Director of the Legal Aid Society's Parole Revocation Defense Unit, confirmed the insider's account. She said that in February of 2019 the unit's attorneys reported ‘on several occasions’ that ALJs paused on-going hearings ‘to step out of the hearing room and ask the supervising ALJ on site for permission’ to restore parole. In contrast…ALJs don't have to ask Tomlinson's permission to impose prison time.
By early 2020, a report from Columbia University found that black New York City residents accused of parole violations were jailed 12 times as often as their white counterparts. For Hispanic residents, it was four times as often. Parole revocations became so routinely spurious that state court judges reversed 50 of them in 2019 alone - more reversals than any previous year on record - and castigated the ALJs on Rikers for their sloppiness and cruelty:
“In one of the 50 decisions, a judge reminded parole officials that ‘notions of due process and fairness apply with equal force in the taking of a plea in the context of a parole violation.’ Another judge condemned what ‘appears to be intentional and manipulative use of the charging and warrant process.’
Two courts called out the Chief Administrative Law Judge at the Rikers Island parole court, Rhonda Tomlinson, for wrongly overruling decisions made by front-line administrative law judges to restore technical violators to parole supervision.”
All this should have disqualified Tomlinson from any kind of promotion, let alone to a role where she’d have power over criminal defendants. Yet when Cuomo nominated her to a judgeship requiring confirmation by the State Senate, just two out of its 43 Democrats spoke out against her. Only one provided any real scrutiny of her record. During Tomlinson’s confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee, State Senator Alessandra Biaggi - whose district includes Rikers Island - questioned her about reports that she unduly pressured ALJs to revoke parole. Tomlinson replied that a state Inspector General investigation had cleared her of any wrongdoing, but that the report was only available via a FOIL request from the IG’s office. She was set to be confirmed later that day.
By contrast, another member of the judiciary committee, State Senator Zellnor Myrie, was effusive in his praise of Tomlinson, and was the one to move her nomination forward for the committee vote:
“Ms. Tomlinson is a constituent, she’s a product of Central Brooklyn. We’re incredibly proud of her and the example that she’s setting for all of the people in our community. I mentioned at the top of our committee meeting how important it is that we see diversity reflected on the bench, and this to me is exactly what we should be seeing. The elevation of really esteemed members of our community, but also black women. It’s important for us to see that and to mark that on the bench.
I can personally attest to her work in the community, as someone who I think will bring that experience to the bench. And so I will very happily be voting in favor of her nomination, and I’d encourage my colleagues to do the same.”
The committee did indeed vote in favor of her nomination, but because the outcome isn’t recorded anywhere online, the exact breakdown of the committee vote is unknown. When her nomination came before the full Senate, it was packaged with a slate of other judicial nominations that included Nassau County District Attorney Madeline Singas, who’d attracted a storm of controversy after Cuomo tapped her for the Court of Appeals. For this reason, almost every senator who rose to explain their vote confined their remarks to Singas. Only State Senator Gustavo Rivera even mentioned Tomlinson, and indicated he would vote against her conformation. Once again, the outcome isn’t available online, so the full accounting of which senators supported Tomlinson and which opposed her is unknown.
Under the law, judges in New York must consider certain factors when setting bail, such as a defendant’s ability to pay, and are prohibited from considering others, such as their purported “dangerousness.” But in practice, judges often disregard this rubric and set bail as they please, and their motivations are usually political. Fear of negative publicity is already a major factor in shaping the punitive approach many judges take when dealing with criminal defendants. By rewarding judges who do so with more prestigious and well-compensated positions, the legislature only further incentivizes their colleagues to do the same.