Judicial conduct investigations lead 15 NY judges to leave bench in 2011

The New York State Commission on Judicial Conduct released its annual report for 2011 today, and while there were fewer investigations conducted this year, the ones that were done prompted 15 judges to resign from office.

The resignations made up less than one-half of 1 percent of the roughly 3,500 judges and justices in the New York State courts. Last year, 14 judges resigned from offices after becoming targets of the commission’s investigators.

The commission reported that it processed 1,818 new complaints in 2011, which is fewer than the record number of 2,025 in 2010 but still the fourth highest in its 34-year history. Every one of the 1,818 complaints was reviewed by staff members, but only 172 investigations were launched — the lowest number of new investigations in the past 10 years. Those 172 cases were added to the 195 investigations that rolled into 2011 from the previous year.

Of the 15 judges that left the bench, 10 of them resigned while complaints were pending, and the others left while under formal charges. Only two upstate town justices were recommended for removal by the commission. Others were publicly censured.

None of the judges who resigned were from Westchester, Rockland or Putnam counties. How many judges in the tri-county area were investigated is unknown, because the Judicial Conduct Commission does not reveal the names of those judges unless they are censured or recommended for dismissal.

To read the full report, go to www.cjc.ny.gov


NY commission fields record number of complaints against judges

The New York State Commission on Judicial Conduct released its annual report today, showing more New Yorkers filed complaints against judges last year than in any year since the agency was founded.

The commission received and processed 2,025 complaints in 2010 — 170 more than were filed in 2009, according to its annual report. But although there were more complaints in 2010, there were fewer investigations. The commission launched 225 full-fledged investigations  last year, compared to 257 investigations in 2009.

From those investigations, 15 judges were publicly disciplined, 36 were confidentially cautioned and 14 resigned, the commission reported. There are about 3,500 judges in the state unified court system.

Commission Administrator Robert H. Tembeckjian said the numbers for 2010 were on par with those from the last five years.

Of the 15 judges who were disciplined, one was from Westchester: Ossining Village Justice Raymond R. Barlaam, who was admonished for scheduling trials in traffic cases based solely on the availability of the officers who made the arrest or issued the ticket. The commission said his actions from 2003 to 2008 resulted in long delays in hundreds of cases and forced defendants “to wait years for their day in court.”

Barlaam, a village justice since 1983, had allowed more than 500 traffic cases to languish — some more than five years — so that he could schedule trials when the issuing officer was available. The commission noted that Barlaam acknowledged his actions were wrong, that he has discontinued the practice and now schedules calendar matters in a timely fashion and considers requests for adjournments on a case-by-case basis. Barlaam has since “disposed of virtually all of the approximately 500 cases at issue, by conducting trials, accepting guilty pleas or entertaining motions to dismiss by the prosecutor,” the commission said.

The admonishment was the least severe of three possible sanctions the commission can issue. The most severe is removal from office, followed by censure. The admonishment results in no penalty against Barlaam but serves to advise the public of his actions.

In the commission’s annual report Tembeckjian renewed a call for state legislation to make the commission’s formal disciplinary proceedings open to the public for the first time since 1978.

“It may be unusual for a government agency to invite more scrutiny of its work,” he said in a written statement, “but that has been the Commission’s unwavering position for more than three decades.”

The Report, which details the Commission’s activities in 2010, is available http://www.cjc.ny.gov/

Judicial Conduct Commission’s special request

The state board that investigates and punishes misbehaving judges released its annual report today, and among the statistics were some interesting recommendations for state government.

First, the commission wants the state’s highest court, the Court of Appeals, to review all of their decisions — not just the ones that disciplined judges want them to review. Here’s the explanation:

“While it may be unusual for a government agency to encourage review of its decisions by a higher authority, the Commission believes this proposal promotes the public policy of checks-and-balances and the independence of the judiciary,” said Robert H. Tembeckjian, the Commission’s administrator.

The commission also restates its long-held request to open judicial disciplinary proceedings to the public. As a professional open government watchdog, three cheers to this request! It would be nice if New York joined 35 other states who already allow the public to attend such hearings. State Sen. John L. Sampson has introduced legislation to make such hearings to be public.

Some of the statistics in the report:

• 1,855 complaints received in 2009 – the second highest number ever, after last year’s 1,923.
• 5,489 complaints received since 2007 – 878 more than in any other 3-year period.
• 471 preliminary inquiries conducted in 2009, the most ever, up from 354 last year.
• 257 new investigations authorized in 2009 — the third highest ever.
25 public decisions rendered in 2009, up from 21 last year:
• 2 Removals from office
• 10 Public Censures
• 9 Public Admonitions
• 4 public stipulations in which judges under investigation or formal charges agreed to leave the bench and not to hold judicial office in the future
• 19 judges resigned while under investigation or while formal charges were
• 47 confidential cautionary letters were issued, up from 37 last year.
• 243 matters were pending at year’s end.

Village judge in trouble over traffic tickets

An Ossining village justice faces admonishment by the New York State Commission on Judicial Conduct for delaying traffic cases.

Village Justice Raymond R. Barlaam, on the Ossining bench since 1983, failed “to dispose of judicial matters promptly, efficiently and fairly” by scheduling traffic cases solely on the availability of police officers to appear in court between 2003 and 2008, according to a commission “determination” dated March 15.

Click here to read the complete story my my colleague Leslie Korngold.

Or click here to read the details from the Commission on Judicial Conduct

Judge censured for “slug” remark

The New York State Commission on Judicial Conduct has censured an upstate judge for trying to punish state lawmakers for not enacting judicial pay raises and for calling Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver “a slug” for his reluctance to raise judges’ pay.

State judges haven’t had a raise in more than 10 years.

According to the commission, Cattaraugus County Judge Larry M. Himelein disqualified himself in 11 cases involving state legislators or their law firms to put economic pressure on the legislators’ law firms to get them to enact a pay raise for the judiciary.

“Judge Himelein’s actions were aggravated by the fact that he sent out numerous mass e-mail messages to other judges strongly encouraging them to join him in mass disqualification as a tactic in the pay-raise dispute and denigrating judges who refused to do so,” the commission stated. “He also made inappropriate public comments about legislators and, in particular, a party to the pay-raise litigation, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, whom he called a ‘slug.’”

The Commission’s Administrator, Robert H. Tembeckjian, said that despite the lack of pay raises, it was unacceptable for the judge “to bring the controversy into an individual courtroom and penalize individual legislators and their clients as a ‘tactic’ or ‘weapon’ in the pay raise dispute.”

The release, determination and relevant exhibits are also available on the Commission’s website, http://www.scjc.state.ny.us

Bedford judge collides with ethics board

If you got a traffic ticket in Bedford for speeding or not wearing your seat belt in 2006 and 2007, you may have gotten gouged by the town court.

My colleague Sean Gorman wrote this story today about a Bedford judge over-fining bad drivers and getting admonished for it by the state’s judicial ethics commission. Bedford, one of the busiest town traffic courts in the state, was handing out $51 to $200 fines for seat-belt violations; the maximum fine was $50. Other drivers were hit with $200 and $300 fines for speeding, when the maximum fine was $150.

The judge apologized, saying he didn’t know there were limits to traffic fines. But the town’s coffers got an extra $11,000 as a result, all of which must be paid back.

Bad behavior by upstate judges

This just in from the New York State Commission on Judicial Conduct: An Erie County judge and a Seneca County judge have resigned in disgrace from the bench, promising never to be judges again.

State Supreme Court Justice Joseph G. Makowski of Erie County quit the bench after a “publicly reported off-the-bench action in assisting an acquaintance.”

Stephen H. Brown, a Justice of the Junius Town Court in Seneca County, quit after he was admonished for “among other things, sending a threatening letter to the tenant in a landlord/tenant dispute after an ex parte request for assistance from the landlord.”

You can check out the full story on the Judicial Conduct Commission’s website, http://www.scjc.state.ny.us.