Domestic violence victim advocates in Erie County breathed a sigh of relief after District Attorney Frank A. Sedita III announced Thursday that he will resume prosecuting misdemeanor domestic violence cases in the county’s Integrated Domestic Violence Court.
Sedita said he flew to New York City on Tuesday and met with the state’s chief of policy and planning to discuss a compromise that would allow the District Attorney’s Office to more effectively and efficiently prosecute domestic violence cases in IDV Court while still keeping the integrity of the integrated court intact.
An agreement was reached with Chief Judge Judy Harris Kluger in less than an hour, he said.
“She made it clear there were certain things they were not going to compromise on,” Sedita said. “These were her suggestions. We’ll implement it on my end, and I’m very hopeful that what was agreed upon will happen.”
Sedita had previously called the IDV Court “a failed experiment” and had refused to prosecute misdemeanors sent to that court since late August.
The specialized court, created in 2003, was formed so that domestic violence victims would not have to appear before different judges in multiple courts to deal with separate criminal, family and matrimonial cases stemming from an abusive relationship.
The district attorney, however, criticized the court for having a high dismissal/acquittal rate, for lacking professional case evaluation and screening, for allowing criminal cases to be used as leverage in civil litigation settlements and for keeping prosecutors waiting unnecessarily while civil issues were addressed in court.
In response to Sedita’s refusal to prosecute misdemeanor domestic violence cases in IDV Court, State Supreme Court Justice Deborah A. Haendiges appointed a special prosecutor earlier this month to handle the misdemeanor assault cases that came before the court. Sedita then filed a legal challenge to her authority to assign a special prosecutor to handle the misdemeanor cases.
As a result of the compromise reached with Kluger this week, Haendiges vacated her order to appoint a special prosecutor, and Sedita withdrew his Article 78 legal challenge. His prosecutors returned to court to handle all IDV cases, including misdemeanors, Thursday.
As part of the compromise, Sedita said, all criminal cases before IDV Court will be separated from the civil cases and will take priority over all other cases.
“The criminal cases will always be called first,” he said.
The streamlining of the process will enable the DA’s Office to more efficiently prosecute domestic violence cases, resulting in the need for only one prosecutor to be assigned to the court instead of two, he said.
Sedita said his meeting with Kluger in New York City also included William Fitzpatrick, the district attorney for Onondaga County, which also has an IDV Court; and Kate Hogan, Warren County district attorney and recent president of the District Attorneys’ Association of the State of New York.
“Judge Kluger was very accommodating,” Sedita said. “My office was very grateful that she interceded and took such a direct interest in this matter.”
Domestic violence victim advocates, meanwhile, said they were relieved that a compromise has been reached. While the very public and adversarial matter between the District Attorney’s Office and the IDV Court remained unresolved, many assault victims were concerned about their cases being effectively addressed, said Suzanne Tomkins, a University at Buffalo Law School professor who co-founded the Clinic for Women, Children and Social Justice.
“I think it’s a good compromise,” she said.
It preserves the integrity of the IDV Court while also appreciating the needs, concerns and time constraints of the DA’s Office, she said.
“It still allows the judge to hear both the criminal and civil cases,” she said, “and still makes it more convenient for victims.”
Sedita said the compromise should debunk the notion put out by some critics that he was an “obstructionist” or “misogynist” for previously taking a hard-line position, which he called one of “last resort” after failed attempts to resolve concerns between his office and the court.
“From my point of view,” he said, “that’s just not true.”