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NYS prosecutor assoc. files lawsuit to block new oversight board

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Brit Hanson File Photo
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NCPR
Problems surrounding the tenure of former St. Lawrence County DA Mary Rain inspired, in part, the plan to create a new independent oversight process.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo and other state officials are facing a lawsuit over plans to create a new oversight board for New York’s prosecutors. Those plans became law in August after years of debate. However, a group that represents District Attorneys statewide says the law is not constitutional.

When lawmakers approved this $5.5 million oversight plan, they were supposed to be making history.

No other state has set up an independent board for investigating and punishing prosecutorial misconduct. New York’s panel was supposed to be made up of roughly a dozen lawyers and judges who’d make their findings public. It was partly inspired by problems with St. Lawrence County DA Mary Rain.

Justice reformers were thrilled. They say that system is overloaded and there is little incentive to punish DAs - some of the most powerful officials in the justice system.

But New York’s district attorney association, called DAASNY, has been critical from the start. DAASNY has filed a lawsuit in Albany County Court asking a judge to stop this new disciplinary system in its tracks.

"We never expected that they would take something that everyone knew would be unconstitutional on its face and pass that," said DAASY President David Soares.

Soares said the lawsuit shouldn’t come as a surprise. Not long after the oversight plan passed the legislature, the attorney general’s office took a look and found possible violations of the New York constitution.

Cuomo has admitted there are problems. His office has suggested a number of tweaks the legislature could make when it reconvenes this winter, like giving lawmakers less power over who is on the board and making rules against “investigating investigations” - basically, interfering with DAs who are just doing their jobs.

But Soares said there is no guarantee those changes will go through.

"I don’t want to get lost and I don’t want the issue to get crystallized into prosecutors refusing oversight because that’s not what this is. Prosecutors welcome oversight," he said.

The DA’s association has been pushing the state to put more resources into an existing disciplinary board. That investigates not just prosecutors, but any attorney who’s facing a serious allegation of misconduct.

As it stands, the new oversight plan is supposed to go into effect January 1. The state has the next few weeks to file a response in court.