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November 27, 2005

New York City justice

There used to be a judge in New York City named Bruce Wright, who was nicknamed "Turn 'Em Loose Bruce." The nickname speaks for itself.

His successor in crime is named Laura Blackburne. Pause for a moment to consider one of my favorite lawyer cartoons. A lawyer in a courtroom has a gun drawn, and the judge, bailiff, and other lawyer have their hands up. The defendant speaks: "God knows you couldn't ask for more in a court-appointed lawyer."

Now, back to Justice Blackburne. In June 2004, she imitated the lawyer in the cartoon I just described.

A judge ordered a defendant to leave a Queens courtroom through a side door yesterday so he could elude a detective waiting in a hallway to arrest him in a separate robbery case, the police said. The judge's action prompted the police commissioner to call for a judicial misconduct investigation.

The defendant, Derek Sterling, was appearing before the judge, Justice Laura D. Blackburne of State Supreme Court [a trial court] in Queens, for a routine update about his progress in a drug treatment program that he had been sent to after a drug arrest. Justice Blackburne was apparently irritated with the detective's arrival at her courtroom and accused him in the record of misrepresenting himself.
I can't give you the link to that article, because it's in the New York Times archives, but an update appeared this past week. The State Commission on Judicial Conduct investigated this conduct and recommended removal from the bench.
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.
What's amazing to me is that the judge continues to have strong defenders.
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.
The judge eventually admitted error but argued for a minor punishment. I love the explanation.
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."
Maybe she can get a job as appointed counsel and make the lawyer cartoon come to life.