Who’s in charge?

Jonathan Lippman’s appointment to our state's highest judicial office was confirmed yesterday by the New York State Senate. Not one member of the Senate voted against him, though three did abstain, as a protest over the fact that the list of nominations by the State Commission on Judicial Nomination, from which Governor Patterson is required to choose, included no women and few minorities.

The New York Times quoted Senator Ruben Diaz, Sr. as saying, “My frustration, my concern is the system. It has nothing to do with you,” addressing his comments directly to Mr. Lippman during the Judiciary Committee hearing. “If I vote ‘yes’ that makes me part of the problem. And I don’t want to be part of the problem.”

Despite the controversy, there was never any serious doubt that Mr. Lippman was a logical and highly qualified choice. As a life-long court system employee, having started with the New York State Unified Court System in 1968, upon graduation from NYU, he is widely respected by the Court System’s administrative rank-and-file. As Judge Kaye’s chief administrative assistant, he is well suited to continuing her legacy of reform. And as a presiding judge on the Court of Appeals, he demonstrated the temperament of a pragmatic liberal and skill for deciding law where there is controversy, making law where there is none, and reducing his Court’s backlog.

While the court system was once dominated heavily be white males, it has changed dramatically in the past few decades. Like many institutions in the city, an older generation of Italian, Irish, and eastern European Jewish whites are slowly losing dominance as African-Americans and Puerto Ricans gain increasing power. In turn, these groups also jostle for power with more recently arrived groups, including non-American blacks and Hispanics from the Caribbean and elsewhere. Chapter Three in John Mollenkopf's A Phoenix in the Ashes provides a good description of this process of growth, decline, competition, and cooperation between New York's various major demographic groups and among its various economic sectors.

I’ve enjoyed having a front row seat for observing the operation of the criminal justice bureaucracy in the Bronx. At a recent bi-monthly “conditions” meeting, in which the senior administrative judge for the Bronx, Hon. John P. Collins, convenes the heads of all of the bureaucracy’s key agencies--police, probation, corrections, court officers, court administration, district attorney, defense bar, and various service agencies including Bronx Community Solutions--I had the chance to observe the entire system’s leadership in one place.

It was possible to see an identifiable pattern – many agencies are led by an older white male, while their chief deputy is often younger, black or Hispanic, and/or female. Blacks, Hispanics and women have all risen in the ranks among judges, attorneys, and the uniformed services, though possibly somewhat less so in the court’s administrative branch.

The Bronx political establishment is undergoing its own struggles between various demographic groups. Party leader Jose Rivera's grip on power is under challenge from a group of Assembly members and state senators led by Rubin Diaz, Jr., Carl Heastie, and Michael Benjamin, who charge that his nepotism and a general exclusion of all but Puerto Ricans from party largesse forced them to rebel.

On the other hand, looking at the senior leadership of these organizations may not really give us a very good picture of who’s actually in charge after all. As Michael Lipsky notes in “Street Level Bureaucracy”:

Public service workers currently occupy a critical position in American society. Although they are normally regarded as low-level employees, the actions of most public service workers actually constitute the services "delivered" by government. Moreover, when taken together the individual decisions of these workers become, or add up to, agency policy. Whether government policy is to deliver "goods" such as welfare or public housing--or to confer status--such as "criminal" or "mentally ill"--the discretionary actions of public employees are the benefits and sanctions of government programs or determine access to government rights and benefits.

Most citizens encounter government (if they encounter it at all) not through letters to congressmen or by attendance at school board meetings but through their teachers and their children's teachers and through the policeman on the corner or in the patrol car.

In Lipsky's analysis, the "street-level bureaucrat" is characterized by relative autonomy from organizational authority, inadequate resources, nonvoluntary clients, the social construction of a client, rationing of services, a focus on client or case processing, and an organizational imperative to husband resources and control clients and the work situation.

Comments

Fascinating post, Ben. I was particularly interested in your summary of Lipsky's definition of a "street-level bureaucrat," as it described my own experience in the county justice system to a "T."