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Tuesday, July 23, 2024 | Back issues
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Prison Officials Slammed for ‘Frivolous’ Appeal

MANHATTAN (CN) - New York's top correctional and parole brass can't rehash their "patently frivolous" immunity arguments to delay a civil rights trial four years in the making, a federal judge said in a scathing ruling.

Since 2011, former New York State Corrections Commissioner Brian Fischer and dozens of other colleagues and parole officers have tried to fend off a class action lawsuit accusing them of going around courts to enforce parole terms that their departments concocted.

The practice had its roots in a New York state law imposing a mandatory parole term of known as post-release supervision for certain violent felonies since 1998.

As the statute did not require judges to announce the terms of parole at sentencing, the state's corrections and parole departments often stepped in to fill the void. This practice landed thousands of former prisoners back behind bars for parole violations that no court imposed.

The Second Circuit declared that practice unconstitutional in its 2006 Earley v. Murray decision.

"Only the judgment of a court, as expressed through the sentence imposed by a judge, has the power to constrain a person's liberty," the appeals court held in Earley.

Five years later, dozens of civil rights lawsuits poured into Manhattan Federal Court, accusing correctional and parole officers of ignoring the 2006 decision. The correctional and parole brass named as defendants tried three times in vain to claim immunity from litigation.

Two of those attempts failed before U.S. District Judge Shira Scheindlin, and another fell flat before the Second Circuit, which also rejected en banc review. In addition, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear the case.

Scheindlin, who is known for her tough stance against civil rights violations, did not take kindly to the defendants' request to postpone trial as they pursued yet another appeal.

"The delays in this case have caused substantial hardship to plaintiffs (and, needless to say, have been caused by defendants' relentless efforts to prevail on qualified immunity)," the judge wrote. "For over four years, thousands of class members have waited for their due process claims to be adjudicated - additional postponements will only exacerbate these harms."

A New York State Department of Corrections Services database identified at least 8,100 prisoners whose sentences were implicated by the Earley decision, the ruling says.

Schiendlin added that trial will be quick because the case's "undisputed record" leaves "no room for debate" on the merits.

Trial will center on the damages owed by three of the defendants: Fischer, his former deputy Anthony Annuci, and former parole department chief counsel Terence Tracy. Their damages trial will start on Dec. 7.

The New York Attorney General's office, which is representing the defendants, declined to comment on the ruling.

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