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Commission Seeks Removal Of A Judge

The New York Times

November 23, 2005


The State Commission on Judicial Conduct has recommended that a controversial New York City judge be removed from the bench for helping a robbery suspect in her courtroom elude a detective by allowing him to exit through a back door.

Justice Laura D. Blackburne of the State Supreme Court in Queens is only the fifth Supreme Court judge to be recommended for removal – the panel’s harshest penalty – since the commission was constituted in 1978.

In its decision, a majority of the 11-member commission said that Justice Blackburne had “set a reprehensible example for court officers and other court personnel” and “transcended the boundaries of acceptable judicial behavior.” Eight members voted for removal and two said she should only be censured. One was not present.

Richard Godosky, a lawyer for Justice Blackburne, said she would ask the Court of Appeals, the state’s highest court, to review the recommendation. That court has agreed with the commission in the four previous cases involving Supreme Court justices, and has affirmed the commission’s recommendations in the vast majority of cases.

“We think the majority missed the boat on this,” Mr. Godosky said. “There’s never been a judge removed for a single instance of aberrant conduct with no venal motive.”

He added, “I think that perhaps adverse publicity regarding the event led them astray.”

In her decade on the bench, first as a civil court judge and then on the Supreme Court, law enforcement officials have frequently accused Justice Blackburne of being biased against police officers.

In 1992, she resigned as chairwoman of the New York City Housing Authority after spending hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars to take business trips overseas and redecorate her office with items including a $3,000 pink leather couch.

But Justice Blackburne, a former counsel for the state N.A.A.C.P. who remains well-connected in local political circles, did not lack for defenders yesterday.

“I’m surprised and chagrined to believe that they would take such an extreme step over this incident,” said Leroy G. Comrie, a city councilman from Queens. “I would encourage her to challenge it.”

Councilman Charles Barron of Brooklyn was even more vocal. He described the commission’s decision as “outrageous, extreme, unjust, straight up bogus.”

“They made it sound like some dangerous criminal was being smuggled out the back door,” added Mr. Barron, who has often crossed swords with law enforcement officials over issues of police misconduct.

In its decision, the commission wrote that the facts of the case were “largely uncontested.”

On June 10, 2004, the defendant, Derek Sterling, appeared before Justice Blackburne to update her on his progress in a drug treatment program.

During the hearing, Detective Leonard Devlin arrived to arrest him in connection with a robbery the month before.

While the detective was outside the courtroom’s main entrance, Justice Blackburne ordered a court officer to remove Mr. Sterling through a private exit at the courtroom’s rear, giving him access to a stairwell leading to the judges’ parking lot.

Told by a prosecutor in the courtroom that her action was inappropriate, Justice Blackburne said she was angry that the detective had told a court officer he was there to question Mr. Sterling when he actually intended to arrest him, calling it a “ruse.”

Mr. Sterling was arrested the next day at his drug treatment center.

According to the commission’s report, when Detective Devlin arrived at the courthouse and while he was waiting outside Justice Blackburne’s courtroom, he told several court workers that he was there to arrest Mr. Sterling. He also told a lawyer, Warren M. Silverman, whom Justice Blackburne asked to represent Mr. Sterling after learning that a police officer was there to arrest him.

One court officer, Sgt. Richard Peterson, told the commission that the detective said he intended only to question Mr. Sterling. The detective insisted that he had told Sergeant Peterson he meant to arrest Mr. Sterling, however, and Sergeant Peterson told the commission that he assumed that the detective was going to arrest the defendant, as well.

Mr. Godosky, Justice Blackburne’s lawyer, disputed that account.

“The majority made up a fact when they said that when a court officer said to the judge that even though the detective was outside to question a defendant, everyone knows that means he was there to be arrested,” he said. “I’ve talked to 20 lawyers and none of them seem to know that.”

According to the commission’s ruling, Justice Blackburne, who never spoke with the detective, found the discrepancy insulting.

“I have directed that you be escorted out of the building by Sergeant Peterson because I – and I’m putting this on the record – specifically, I resent the fact that a detective came to this court under the ruse of wanting to ask questions when, in fact he had it in his head that he wanted to arrest you,” she said. “If there is a basis for him arresting you, he will have to present that in the form of a warrant.”

Justice Blackburne added that she was not trying to keep Mr. Sterling from being arrested, but was “trying to keep you from being arrested today in my courtroom based on obvious misrepresentation on the part of the detective.”

The judge later admitted that she had acted improperly and requested that the commission issue a disciplinary sanction no stronger than censure. But the commission disagreed, saying that her behavior was “such gross deviation from the proper role of a judge that it justifies the sanction of removal.”

Justice Blackburne was sharply criticized by an array of law enforcement and police union officials, including Raymond W. Kelly, the police commissioner, who called her action “outrageous conduct by any measure.”

It was the second time in recent years that Justice Blackburne drew the ire of police officials. In one 2002 case, she threw out a 13-count indictment against a man accused of shooting an officer and later refused to reinstate the charges, saying Queens prosecutors had taken too long to bring charges against the suspect. A state appellate court overruled her decision.

Officials from the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, which along with the Detectives Endowment Association had filed a complaint against Justice Blackburne before the commission, lauded yesterday’s decision.

“Laura Blackburne has demonstrated throughout her career that the only judgment she possesses is bad judgment,” said Patrick J. Lynch, the P.B.A.’s president. “She aided and abetted a felon in escape that was wanted for questioning for violently robbing the citizens of the city in Queens. She knew what she was doing.”

He was echoed by Commissioner Kelly, who said, “Her extraordinary conduct merited this appropriate sanction.”

But Mr. Barron, the councilman from Brooklyn, said the judge was the target of a “witch hunt” by the police unions.

“I think all New Yorkers need to support Justice Blackburne,” Mr. Barron said.

“She’s a woman of integrity, intelligence, competence and commitment to justice.”

Ronald L. Kuby, a prominent civil rights lawyer who has defended Justice Blackburne’s actions in the past, said that the commission’s decision was “no more than what we’ve come to expect from a commission more interested in public relations than in the administration of justice.”

He added, “With all of the corrupt judges, the judges who engage in sexual misconduct, the judges who are non compos mentis, the judges who are alcoholics – all of whom remain on the bench and go unchallenged by the state commission on judicial conduct – to order removal of the judge who took strong affirmative action to prevent police misconduct in her courtroom is outrageous.”

The incident with Mr. Sterling took place while Justice Blackburne was presiding in drug treatment court, where judges have an unusual amount of contact with the defendants who appear in front of them, and often serve as cheerleaders and social workers as well as jurists.

The last time the commission called for the removal of a Supreme Court justice was in 2002, when Justice Reynold N. Mason of the Supreme Court in Brooklyn was removed for improper financial dealings.

The commission has sometimes been criticized for focusing on part-time judges in small-town courts, and by its own account only 36 of the 149 judges it has voted to remove were in full-time posts.

But the commission has gone after higher-ranking jurists, too, including Michael H. Feinberg, the Brooklyn surrogate judge, who was removed from the bench in February for awarding millions of dollars in fees to an old friend.

Leslie Eaton and Kareem Fahim contributed reporting to this article.