The difference between censure and removal

Accepting determinations of the State Commission on Judicial Conduct, the New York Court of Appeals recently removed 2 judges from office for a variety of misconduct.  Both judges had admitted to at least some of the misconduct charged, but both had argued that censure, rather than removal, was the appropriate sanction.  The Court rejected their arguments, considering the “full spectrum” and “entirety” of their behavior to find their misconduct “truly egregious,” justifying removal.  (Suspension without pay is not available as a sanction in New York judicial discipline cases.)

The Court removed 1 judge for (1) her conviction for a misdemeanor offense of driving while intoxicated; being discourteous and seeking preferred treatment from the arresting officers; violating the terms of her conditional discharge by ignoring court orders to abstain from alcohol; and going to Thailand for an extended vacation without notice to the court or her lawyer, resulting in the revocation of her conditional discharge; (2) failing to disqualify herself from the arraignment of a former client and attempting to have his case transferred in a manner that she thought might benefit him; and (3) making discourteous, insensitive, and undignified comments before counsel and litigants in court.  In the Matter of Astacio, Opinion (New York Court of Appeals October 16, 2018).  The Commission decision is In the Matter of Astacio, Determination (New York State Commission on Judicial Conduct April 23, 2018).

Acknowledging that the judge had “expressed some contrition,” the Court was “unpersuaded” that she had “genuinely accepted personal responsibility” because she continued “to point to external factors and justifications as excuses for her behavior.”  The Court explained:

Although we do not expect petitioner to “adopt a posture of obeisance,” we do require that she adequately “recognize wrongdoing in order to forestall the inevitable, unfortunate conclusion that, absent a harsher sanction, more of the same will ensue” . . . .  Here, petitioner’s justifications for her conduct indicate she does not truly recognize the essential role her own decisions played in bringing about her current predicament.

Emphasizing that the judge’s actions cannot be viewed “through a limited prism” but “the full spectrum of her behavior and its impact on public perception of the judiciary” must be considered, the Court concluded that, given her “apparent lack of insight into the gravity and impact of her behavior on both public perception of her fitness to perform her duties and on the judiciary overall, . . . any rupture in the public’s confidence cannot be repaired.”

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The Court removed the second judge for (1) on numerous occasions, acting impatiently, raising his voice, and making demeaning and insulting remarks, often in open court; (2) twice striking witness testimony and dismissing petitions for insufficient proof because counsel reflexively kept saying “okay;” (3) awarding counsel fees without providing the party ordered to pay an opportunity to be heard, contrary to applicable rules; and (4) failing to cooperate with the Commission.  In the Matter of O’Connor, Opinion (New York Court of Appeals October 16, 2018).  The Commission decision is In the Matter of  O’Connor, Determination (New York State Commission on Judicial Conduct March 30, 2018).

The judge argued that his courtroom demeanor “was justified by the circumstances, including the ‘rough and tumble’ nature of landlord-tenant litigation.”  Disagreeing, the Court explained:

To be sure, judges must insist upon order and decorum in the courtroom . . . .  Nevertheless, the need to maintain order must be counterbalanced against a judge’s obligations to remain patient and to treat those appearing before the court with dignity and courtesy . . . .  As we have explained, “respect for the judiciary is better fostered by temperate conduct, not hot-headed reactions” . . . .

The Court also emphasized that the judge’s “failure to observe and follow the law resulted in substantial and unjustifiable adverse consequences for the parties that went uncorrected—namely the dismissal of their petitions and the imposition of fee awards.”  Thus, the Court rejected that the judge’s argument that, at most, he had committed “harmless” legal errors that should not serve as grounds for findings of misconduct.  The Court stated that the judge’s “sustained pattern of inappropriate behavior evinced a lack of understanding of his role as a judge—most notably by disregarding the law and impinging on the fundamental right to be heard—thus eroding the public’s trust and confidence in the integrity of the judiciary.”

The judge did not challenge the Commission’s finding that he had engaged in a “consistent pattern of efforts to withhold cooperation and to delay or thwart the investigation.”  For example, he had not appeared at the hearing before the referee, at a proceeding scheduled to address the issue of notice, at an opportunity to reopen the hearing, or at oral argument before the Commission members.

On appeal, the Court rejected the judge’s argument that, because his underlying conduct, standing alone, would not result in more than a censure, “his failure to cooperate fully with the Commission’s investigation should not elevate the sanction to removal.”  It explained that it would “not overlook the entirety of a judge’s behavior and the extent to which it ‘qualif[ies] in the aggregate to the level and quality of egregiousness that merit[s] the ultimate discipline of removal.’”  The Court concluded:

If the public trust in the judiciary is to be maintained, as it must, those who don the robe and assume the role of arbiter of what is fair and just must do so with an acute appreciation both of their judicial obligations and of the Commission’s constitutional and statutory duties to investigate allegations of misconduct . . . .  In short, willingness to cooperate with the Commission’s investigations and proceedings is not only required—it is essential.

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