Scenes from the Culture War in New York State

New York Governor Kathy Hochul (L) with her husband William J. Hochul Jr. shakes hands with Chief Judge Janet DiFiore (R) during her swearing in ceremony at the New York State Capitol in Albany, New York on August 24... New York Governor Kathy Hochul (L) with her husband William J. Hochul Jr. shakes hands with Chief Judge Janet DiFiore (R) during her swearing in ceremony at the New York State Capitol in Albany, New York on August 24, 2021. - New York Governor Andrew Cuomo handed over the reins of the nation's fourth most populous state to Lieutenant Governor Kathy Hochul, a fellow Democrat who will become New York's first ever female governor. (Photo by Angela Weiss / AFP) (Photo by ANGELA WEISS/AFP via Getty Images) MORE LESS

This isn’t new news. It happened more than a week ago. But I’d missed it. So maybe you did too. The Chief Judge of the New York State court system, Janet DiFiore, announced on August 23rd that court employees would have until September 7th to get vaccinated or undergo weekly COVID-19 testing.

In response Dennis Quirk, President of the New York State Court Officers Association, published the addresses of DiFiore’s two homes and called for protests outside her homes. He was suspended for doxxing the Chief Judge. But as he pointed out the state can’t suspend him as President of the union.

Quirk, who – hard to imagine this is even possible – has been President of the union for 43 years, told The Daily News, “I have only one comment. The chief judge of the state of New York, okay, Janet DiFiore, is the most corrupt and unethical judge in the history of the state of New York, okay?”

There are strong class and culture war vibes reverberating around the whole story … to put it mildly. DiFiore appears to be rather well off. She has a home in Westchester and a vacation home in the Hamptons. One NYDN article refers to them as “mansions.” Meanwhile, Quirk … well, you’ve already met Quirk, the 72 year old head of the court officers union who’s been the union president for 43 years.

Quirk points out he’s not personally anti-vax. He says he’s vaxed and in fact has already had a third booster shot. He’s just adamantly opposed to any mandates. Any changes have to be negotiated. (Not an inherently unreasonable position for a union – teachers unions originally took a similar stance.)

The breakdown of vaccination in the court system tells the story. 60% of state court employees are vaccinated. 80% of judges are vaccinated. But only 39% of court officers are vaccinated. (It’s not clear to me from the NYDN write-up whether the judges are considered employees for these purposes and thus whether the judges are included in the overall 60%.) Depending on how many of the 15,600 employees are cops, the whole system might be highly vaccinated except for the officers.

Regardless, you get the general lay of the land.

As seems to be the case in many parts of the country, police officers are among the least vaccinated groups. The whole thing really breaks down along the very familiar cultural cleavages we’ve seen powerfully over the last 18 months: generally affluent and educated lawyers getting vaccinated at high rates while more male and culturally and politically conservative cops are not.

Indeed, the court officers seem to be a particularly unreconstructed bunch. While officers in the state courts broadly mirror the state’s demographics, whites are generally in more senior positions while Black and Hispanic officers are generally in more junior positions. A 2020 independent commission report found a “culture of toxicity and unprofessionalism” among court officers across the state. The report cited a separate investigation in which black court officers in Brooklyn accused Quirk of fostering a “safe haven for racist speech and actions.”

There’s a fair amount of evidence for this. The report cited numerous instances of court officers using racial slurs including the n-word and a general hostility “by court officers towards litigants, litigants’ relatives and attorneys of color.” The report further found that judges were often hesitant to report or criticize officers because they would then create a hostile environment in their courtrooms.

Last year, Brooklyn officer Sgt. Terri Pinto Napolitano was suspended and later fired for posting a meme of President Barack Obama being lynched. That proved too much even for Quirk, whose union put out a statement calling Napolitano’s conduct “abhorrent, by anyone, at any time, and under any circumstances. But at this critical moment in our history — when our nation is reeling from the death of George Floyd and its aftermath — it is a sickening and unpardonable offense against every colleague in our court system, as well as the vast and diverse public that we serve.”

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