In just 10 years, the New York State Court System has launched dozens of domestic violence courts across the state—an achievement that the court system marked during a special ceremony Sept. 20, 2006.
The state’s first domestic violence court—the Brooklyn Felony Domestic Violence Court—opened in 1996. The court, which was developed in collaboration with the Center for Court Innovation, was distinguished by a specially trained presiding judge and an emphasis on reaching out to potential partners, including victim advocates, batterer programs and probation officials. Researchers found that these innovations led to a reduction in probation violations, reduced dismissals and improved delivery of services to victims.
Today, that Brooklyn model serves as the inspiration for two kinds of domestic violence courts in New York: criminal domestic violence courts and integrated domestic violence courts. While the criminal courts handle only criminal cases, the integrated courts bring before a single judge all the cases involving an individual family, whether the cases involve criminal, civil, family, housing or matrimonial issues.
As New York State Chief Administrative Judge Jonathan Lippman explained, the most important goals of all the state’s domestic violence courts are “victim safety and defendant accountability.”
Domestic violence courts represent “a basic change in the way we do business,” Lippman said. “It’s about not letting domestic violence victims fall through the cracks. With this and other problem-solving courts, we developed a new role for the courts, one that is less passive … The courts cannot remain passive in a world where the ills of society are reflected in the courts.”
Judith S. Kaye, the state’s chief judge, recalled two murder-suicides in the mid-1990s that motivated the court system “to find a better way” to deal with domestic violence. The question court planners asked themselves, Kaye recalled, was, “How do we assure there will be a just result in every one of these heart-wrenching cases?”
Despite the progress of the last decade, Kaye lamented that there seems to have been no reduction in the need for orders of protection. She noted that 1.4 million orders had been issued in the state over the last 10 years. “Yes, we’re making a difference, but as these grim statistics remind us, our work is far from complete,” Kaye said.
Barry Kamins, president of the Bar Association of New York City, called the concept of the domestic violence court “a breathtaking one.” He said the courts today have changed dramatically for the better since his days as a young prosecutor when “a battered woman would appear before the judge, and the judge would ask me if there’s a relationship, as if that explained the evil that had been done… and then he’d suggest that they go home.”
Bronx District Attorney Robert T. Johnson noted that domestic violence crime poses unique challenges. “This crime doesn’t quite respond to the placement of a police officer in a particular location. It happens behind closed doors… Because of that, it cries out for the community and courts to do a bit more.”
Also speaking at the ceremony was a woman whose case had been handled by an integrated domestic violence court. The mother of two young children talked about the abuse she suffered at the hands of her husband of 13 years. “It started as verbal and then went to hitting, pushing, slapping… Once he had me on the floor with a knife to my throat threatening to kill me.” Her husband restricted her access to money and the phone “to control everything I did.” Eventually, fleeing to a battered women’s shelter, she brought both criminal and custody cases in an integrated domestic violence court. Today, she said, her life is much better. Among other things, she lives in a shelter and her children are in counseling, getting proper medical care for their asthma and have supervised visitation with their father. An order of protection is also in place.
Judges John Leventhal, who has presided over the Brooklyn Felony Domestic Violence Court since its inception, and Matthew D’Emic, who was appointed to the second Brooklyn Felony Domestic Violence Court in 1998, were singled out for special praise. “How lucky we were John Leventhal to have found you on day one and then his colleague Matt D’Emic,” Kaye said.
Speakers also highlighted the Center for Court Innovation’s role. The center, which serves as the independent research and development arm of the New York State Court System, helped develop and run the state’s first domestic violence courts and provides training and other forms of technical assistance, including evaluation services, to all the state’s domestic violence courts.
Other speakers at the 10th anniversary ceremony included Assemblywoman Helene E. Weinstein, chairwoman of the Assembly Judiciary Committee, and Yolanda B. Jimenez, commissioner of the Mayor’s Office to Combat Domestic Violence.
There are over 60 domestic violence and integrated domestic violence courts in operation or planning in New York, and the state has received over $5 million in federal grants to support domestic violence court operations, program development and staff.
Domestic violence court judges from across the state attended the ceremony, which was held in the Brooklyn Courthouse.