The New York Times by DON VAN NATTA JR. - November 22, 1995
With so many people and so many emotions jammed into such small spaces, it is no wonder New York City courts are raucous places where court officers and judges have to struggle to maintain the peace. But these days some of them are failing to keep the peace among themselves. In the last few months the relationship between a dozen or so judges throughout the city and the union leader of the uniformed court officers has escalated into a high-volume clash laced with personal attacks and, at times, profanity. The judges have complained that some officers, perhaps taking a cue from their union leader, are failing to obey orders and treating the public rudely. They say some also chew gum and take personal calls during court business. In May, two Brooklyn Housing Court judges, who had complained about an officer, found copies of their complaint letters wrapped with rubber bands around boxes of rat poison inside their courthouse mailboxes. (The court officer in question denied planting the rat poison.)
"There is a real concern among some judges that some court officers are not acting in an appropriate manner," said Administrative Judge E. Leo Milonas. "We want to send the message, loud and clear, that the judges run the courtrooms and the court officers have to conduct themselves in a professional manner." Dennis W. Quirk, 45, president of the 1,200-member New York State Court Officers Association, was himself suspended without pay for shouting a profanity at a Housing Court judge. "If they want a war, I don't take prisoners," Mr. Quirk, who has led the union for 23 years, said. "I take body bags." No one is quite sure how or why the dispute began, though some judges suggested they were fed up with Mr. Quirk's power and outspokenness about their efforts to control their courtrooms; court officers, who carry guns, are responsible for security within the courtroom and for helping the public and jurors. Coincidentally, the fight has intensified at a time when the court officers' union is working without a contract, which expired in April. Contract negotiations are scheduled to begin on Dec. 4, and both sides say they hope the recent clashes will be kept out of the negotiating room.The disagreements also come during the budget season, as the officers' union aggressively lobbies for more officers.
An Office of Court Administration committee concluded this summer that the court system needs 79 new officers to maintain its current level of security. But the new positions were initially left out of next year's budget, outraging Mr. Quirk and union members. That anger burst into public view at a budget hearing on Oct. 5, when Mr. Quirk criticized Manhattan Criminal Court Judge Ruth Pickholz, the president of the Criminal Court Judges Association. Judge Pickholz called for new computers and improved court facilities but no new court officers. When it was Mr. Quirk's turn to speak, he criticized Judge Pickholz for allowing a defendant to jump over the railing that separates the front of her courtroom from the gallery, which Mr. Quirk considered a security breach. Judge Pickholz responded that some security problems were caused by discourteous and disruptive officers who made personal calls and chewed gum.
Mr. Quirk in turn responded with a complaint that Judge Pickholz did not wear black robes in court. "Maybe the defendant who jumped over the rail thought you were a social worker," he told the judge. "Maybe that's what you should do -- become a social worker." Since the hearing, 37 new officers were added to the budget. But nine judges complained afterward to Judge Milonas, the state's chief administrative judge, that Mr. Quirk's confrontational actions were setting a poor example for court officers, who mimicked them in courtrooms. "There are some who are extremely concerned," said Judge Barry A. Cozier, the deputy chief administrative judge for the New York City courts. "He has been president of the union in excess of more than 20 years. He is somewhat of an institution within the institution. Some people have a problem with that, but it's a fact of life." Mr. Quirk's suspension, for 45 days, came in May, when he shouted a profanity at Judge Margaret Taylor in Manhattan Housing Court. "Every day, for seven or eight days, she had been abusing the court officers," Mr. Quirk said yesterday. "She was yelling at them, telling them to sit down. She was making all sorts of derogatory comments that court officers are no good, that they are worse than the Gestapo."
Judge Taylor responded yesterday, "No, I did not do that." She said her problems with court officers stem from her desire to run a "tender-loving-care courtroom," which, she said, some court officers' behavior disrupts. Judge Taylor said that she hears landlord and tenant cases in which a majority of people represent themselves. "I like it to be quiet, and I like it to be humane," Judge Taylor said. "But the court officers shout at people, abuse people and arrest people. I see no need for a large military presence in that court. I believe you need no court officers in that court." In response to the outcry against officers, Judge Milonas issued a memo last month asking the city's 500 judges to make written complaints about officers' behavior so that the Court of Office Administration can begin formal investigations. "If they feel there is a real problem, sort of griping about it is not enough," Judge Milonas said. At the same time, Mr. Quirk issued his own memorandum to court officers, asking them to begin recording the times judges are on and off the bench and report any "unusual event or conditions." The memo annoyed most judges. But a few weeks later, Mr. Quirk withdrew the directive. "I get along with 99.8 percent of the judges in this city," Mr. Quirk said. "There is just a small group of people who don't agree with the way we do things. But no one -- no one -- will stop me from being president of this union and doing what is best for this union."