No divorce from judicial role

In several recent judicial discipline cases, part-time judges were sanctioned for their conduct as attorneys.

In In the Matter of Senzer, 150 N.E.3d 21 (New York 2020), the New York Court of Appeals removed a part-time judge from office for repeatedly using language in 9 emails to 2 clients that was degrading, profane, vulgar, and sexist and that insulted their daughter, opposing counsel, and the presiding court attorney referee, including “an extremely crude gender-based slur to describe opposing counsel.”  The Court’s opinion does not specifically describe the language the judge used but accepted the determination of the State Commission on Judicial Conduct, which has detailed findings.  The judge sent the emails to 2 parents he was representing in a family court matter against their daughter in which they were seeking visitation rights to their grandchild.

The Court held that the judge’s “statements were manifestly vulgar and offensive, and his repeated use of such language in written communications to insult and demean others involved in the legal process showed a pervasive disrespect for the system, conveyed a perception of disdain for the legal system, and indicated that he is unable to maintain the high standard of conduct we demand of judges.”  It emphasized that the judge was “acting as an officer of the court representing clients in an ongoing litigation—a professional function integral to our legal system.”  The Court also explained that the judge’s “derogatory comments impugned not just the particular referee involved in this case but all judges, and with it, the judiciary.  In this context, petitioner’s conduct undermined the dignity and integrity of the judicial system.”

“Especially disturbing,” the Court stated, was the judge’s “use of an intensely degrading and ‘vile’ gendered slur to describe a female attorney” and his “demeaning reference to her as ‘eyelashes.’”  The Court noted that “it is critical to our judicial system that judges ‘conduct themselves in such a way that the public can perceive and continue to rely upon the impartiality of those who have been chosen to pass judgment on legal matters involving their lives, liberty and property.’”  The Court found that the judge’s misconduct was not “an isolated or spontaneous slip of the tongue, as the statements—repeated multiple times—were included in deliberative, written communications petitioner made to these clients relating to their legal representation.”

The Court also concluded that the judge’s belief that the emails would not be shared did not excuse his conduct, explaining, “because judges carry the esteemed office with them wherever they go, they must always consider how members of the public, including clients or colleagues, will perceive their actions and statements . . . .  Petitioner’s clients with whom he had a professional relationship are indisputably members of the public despite any personal relationship he had with them.”  The Court also emphasized that the judge’s “derogatory statements directly targeted the legal system and its participants writ large, and, thus, cannot be divorced from his judicial role, notwithstanding that petitioner communicated them when off the bench. . . .  A judge’s role is to cultivate respect for the judicial process and its participants—petitioner did just the opposite.”

In 2002, the Commission had issued the judge a letter of dismissal and caution for making sarcastic, disrespectful comments during a court proceeding.

The Court concluded:  “Such a pattern of conduct, engaged in over several months and combined with a prior caution by the Commission . . . constitutes an unacceptable and egregious pattern of injudicious behavior that warrants removal.”

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Accepting an agreed statement of facts and recommendation, the New York Commission publicly censured a part-time judge for, in addition to other misconduct, while acting as a private attorney in a civil case, making an insensitive remark about a co-defendant’s ethnicity and asserting his judicial office when confronted about the remark.  In the Matter of Tawil, Determination (New York State Commission on Judicial Conduct December 12, 2019).

The judge appeared as a private defense attorney in the liability phase of a bifurcated trial in a personal injury case involving a car accident.  The judge represented 2 defendants; a co-defendant was of Hispanic descent.  Judge Genine Edwards presided over the trial.

On March 8, during his summation, the judge stated:

On the other hand, you have Mr. Batista.  He’s on the phone talking to his female girlfriend or someone.  He’s selling cell phones to his passenger, he’s listening to the radio, he said they’re having a good time in the car.  They’re having a good time and he’s paying attention to the passenger, to his girlfriend, probably to the radio.  For all we know, he could be frying up some platanos in the front seat [emphasis added].  We don’t know.  But he’s not paying attention to the road, what’s going on around him, okay.

The next day, before the jury was charged, Judge Edwards conducted an off-the-record conference with the judge and his client’s insurance adjuster in chambers.  During the conference, Judge Edwards told the judge that his summation remark about “platanos” was “racist” and said, “What’s going to happen now is your client is going to pay $25,000 to settle this case right now or I am going to report you to the Appellate Division Second Department.  That’s your license counselor.”  The judge replied that he was “a current Part-Time Town Justice” and that he would never “intentionally make a racist comment.”  The judge would testify that he was fearful of the threat and nervous when he said this.

The judge subsequently asked the Advisory Committee on Judicial Ethics whether he was required to report Judge Edwards to the Commission; the Committee advised that he was.  In filing a complaint against Judge Edwards, the judge described his own conduct to the Commission, and the Commission also authorized an investigation of Judge Tawil’s own conduct.

The Commission found that Judge Tawil’s summation included “a demeaning remark” that “showed an insensitivity to the special ethical obligations of judges and detracted from the dignity of judicial office.”  The Commission acknowledged that “all attorneys (including those who are judges) have wide latitude in presenting argument to the jury,” but emphasized that “the tone of the comment and the assertion of his judicial office warrant a finding of misconduct.”

(In a separate proceeding, the Commission also publicly censured Judge Edwards, based on a stipulation, finding that her “explicit threat to complain to disciplinary authorities regarding Tawil’s summation comment in an effort to induce Tawil’s client to settle the matter pending before her for a specific amount was coercive and improper” and “weaponize[ed] her obligation to take appropriate action regarding substantial attorney misconduct . . . .”  In the Matter of Edwards, Determination (New York State Commission on Judicial Conduct October 23, 2019).)

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The Arizona Commission on Judicial Conduct publicly reprimanded a pro tem judge for providing false information to law enforcement investigating her client.  Gillis, Order (Arizona Commission on Judicial Conduct January 11, 2020).

In a family law matter, the judge was representing an individual who was subject to an order of protection that prohibited third-party contact.  Law enforcement investigated the judge’s client for an alleged violation of the order with respect to a phone call to the opposing party’s real estate agent.  The client told law enforcement that his attorney had also been on the line during the call, and, when initially contacted by law enforcement, the judge stated that she had been on the call.  Shortly thereafter, she notified the officer that her statement was false.  The judge was charged with providing false information to law enforcement.  The charges were dismissed after she successfully completed a diversion program.  She self-reported to the Commission and the State Bar.  The State Bar has also publicly reprimanded her.

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