It’s Pro Bono Day!

Today is Pro Bono Day in Westchester County, a day where lawyers are encouraged to waive their fees and fight for impoverished clients. In recognition of the American Bar Association’s first ever National Pro Bono Week, Pace University Law School in White Plains is hosting a day’s worth of programs and activities for attorneys who want to take on the challenge of pro bono work.

Later tonight, state Supreme Court Justice Francis A. Nicolai will be among those to receive the “Partners In Justice Award” during a reception starting at 5:30 p.m. Nicolai, the presiding judge of the Appellate Term for the Ninth and Tenth Judicial Districts, will be honored alongside attorneys Barbara Lerman, Julie Cvek, Robert Byrne, Dawn Arnold and the law firm of McCarthy Fingar LLP in the Omni Room of the Judicial Institute.

Sponsors include Pace Law School Center for Career Development, Legal Services of the Hudson Valley, The Westchester County Pro Bono Committee, Westchester County Bar Association, Westchester Women’s Bar Association, Westchester Black Bar Association, Brandeis Bar Association, Columbian Bar Association, and bar associations in White Plains, New Rochelle and Yonkers.

Bellantoni says goodbye (updated)

Westchester County Judge Rory Bellantoni is stepping down after six years on the bench, effective June 8, but his next destination has been the talk of the courthouse over the past few days.

Rumors have been swirling that Bellantoni is leaving to work for White Plains civil rights lawyer Jonathan Lovett — a controversial figure whose clients all seem to be suing the county, police departments or or some form of municipal government. I spoke to Lovett this morning and he insisted that Bellantoni will NOT be working for his small law firm. Bellantoni won’t return my calls, so Lovett’s word is the only thing I have right now.

Bellantoni, a Republican, apparently is leaving over money. In his resignation letter, he said the lack of judicial pay raises has caused economic hardships on Bellantoni’s family, according to Administrative Judge Francis Nicolai. 

County and state judges make $136,700 a year. They haven’t received` a raise in 10 years.

Bellantoni made headlines in October when he exonerated Richard DiGuglielmo, who had spent 10 years in prison on a murder conviction in the shooting death of Charles Campbell of Dobbs Ferry. Bellantoni threw out the conviction after a hearing in which an eyewitness to the shooting recanted his trial testimony. In his decision, Bellantoni said Dobbs Ferry police coerced witness Michael Dillon to change his story and blasted the Westchester District Attorney’s office in a bizarre “Wizard of Oz” reference, comparing Dillon to Dorothy Gale and authorities to the wizard behind the curtain.

Bellantoni, who had been the presiding judge of sex offender court, was reassigned to civil court a few months ago – shortly after the DiGuglielmo decision – and was made an acting state Supreme Court justice. Nicolai said he needed another judge to hear civil cases in the 9th Judicial District, which includes Westchester, Rockland, Putnam, Orange and Dutchess counties.

Bellantoni’s decision means he won’t be following in the steps of his father, Orazio Bellantoni, who has been on the bench for 25 years.

Judge Bartlett Out after Medical Procedure

Judge Catherine Bartlett has not held court for the past two weeks and has not scheduled any cases for the next few weeks.

The Orange County lawyer, an appointed state Court of Claims judge, remains assigned to Rockland County Courthouse, but has taken time off for a medical procedure, said Judge Francis Nicolai, the administrative law judge for the 9th Judicial District, which includes Rockland.

Nicolai said he expects Bartlett back behind the bench in a few weeks, possibly sooner than her blank calendar of cases on the court wwebsite indicated.

Nicolai assigned Bartlett  to handle criminal cases in Rockland. An appointee by former GOP Gov. George Pataki to a 10-year-term whose husband is the Orange County GOP chairman, Bartlett also has been designated an acting state Supreme Court judge. She’s a former county attorney and Goshen judge.

“I know she was planning on being out for a minor medical procedure,” Nicolai told The Journal-News today. “I am sure she will be back sooner than expected.”

Rate your judge on “Robe Probe”

There’s a website called Robeprobe.com, and if enough attorneys and their clients in the Lower Hudson Valley find out about this, things could get very interesting.

Basically, it’s a rating system for judges at all levels, from U.S. Supreme down to municipal judges. Even judges from other countries are listed.  Billing itself as “the world’s most trusted judge rating site” (like there are so many others), the site’s search engine asks you to choose the jurisdiction (state, county, municipal, appellate, etc.) then type in the name of the judge and give them one to 5 stars. If your judge isn’t listed, you can add him/her to the list.

I typed in a few names of judges from Westchester County. The only ones who were listed were State Supreme Court Justices Lester Adler and Richard Molea, and county Judge Barbara Zambelli. Judge Francis Nicolai, the court administrator for the 9th Judicial District, was listed, as was Court of Appeals Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman – the top judge in New York state.

No one has rated them yet, so if you’re so inclined, you know where to find them.

Logo courtesy of RobeProbe.com

Judge says “Olvídalo!” to school lawsuit

Brace yourself for this one:

A state judge has rendered a decision in a lawsuit filed by the father of a New Rochelle High School student over a confrontation his daughter had with her Spanish teacher in October 2005.

According to court papers, the teacher approached the girl during class and told her she had to leave because she flunked Spanish 2. The teacher told her this in front of other students and ordered her to turn in her textbook and go to the counselor’s office. The girl argued that she passed the earlier class, and the teacher said that was a lie.

The girl’s father, an attorney, sued for emotional distress, and here’s what he wrote:

“It is clear that the conduct of the teacher … was so outrageous in character, and so extreme in degree, as to go beyond all bounds of decency, and to be regarded as atrocious, and utterly intolerable in a civilized community, certainly in a student/teacher relationship.”

Telling a kid to leave the classroom now qualifies as outrageous, extreme and atrocious? Really?

The school district fired back, saying the girl was never teased about the incident, never sought counseling or treatment and — this is my favorite — stayed with the teacher and passed the Spanish 3 class.

The father continued:

“The actions here were between an adult who was in a position of power, authority and influence over this child. Her words must be seen as more than just insults. This occurred at the hands of a teacher in what was to be a safe and nurturing school classroom to a young 14 year old girl in front of her friends during class for no rational reason whatsoever.”

O.K. So maybe the teacher should have told her to leave before class began, or waited until after everyone left. But does this rise to the level of a civil suit?

State Supreme Court Justice Francis Nicolai had the answer: No. While the remarks may have been inappropriate, he said, they were not “utterly intolerable in a civilized community” and he dismissed the complaint last week.

Olvídalo, for you non-Spanish speakers, is the equivalent of fuggedaboudit. I’m sure the student in question already knows this. She passed Spanish 4, according to the court papers.