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.