A state Supreme Court justice from the Bronx should be censured for using her staffers to watch her child while she was on the bench and inviting them pray with the judge in her chambers, the state Commission on Judicial Conduct recommended unanimously in a determination released Thursday.
By having her court employees look after her daughter on at least five occasions between 2006 and 2011, and probably more often, the commission said Mary Ann Brigantti-Hughes “engaged in conduct that was implicitly coercive and inconsistent with the ethical rules.”
The panel also found that she had staff members drive her on personal errands during business hours during the same period, including shopping trips, and to perform non-work-related tasks such as copying religious materials.
“The record before us amply demonstrates that these extra-judicial services were not de minimis and went well beyond the professional courtesies or occasional acts of personal assistance that might ordinarily be provided in emergency situations by subordinates to supervisors, of vice versa,” the commission stated.
Instead, the panel continued, they reflected an “egregious misuse of court resources” and violated the judge’s obligation to always act in a way that “promotes public confidence in the integrity and impartiality of the judiciary.”
The justice’s daughter was between the ages of 6 and 11 during the time in question, according to the commission’s determination.
As for the religious activities, the commission said Brigantti-Hughes asked staff members on “multiple occasions” to join hands and pray with her in her chambers during business hours and invited some staffers to attend services or other events at her church on nights or weekends.
In one instance, the commission said, a staffer attended a weekend retreat in Pennsylvania sponsored by the justice’s church at the staffer’s expense.
“Although we recognize that respondent extended these invitations ‘out of her sincere devotion to her religious principles,’ it is clear that she should have been more sensitive to the serious potential for impropriety in injecting her religious practices into the workplace in such a manner,” the commission wrote, quoting an agreed-to statement between the justice and the commission.
In mitigation, the commission said Brigantti-Hughes asked court administrators about the propriety of holding prayer meetings in court facilities and may have believed she was acting according to that advice.
The commission said that in 2003, the Office of Court Administration advised Brigantti-Hughes that she could use “available court facilities during the lunch hour” for “Bible study and other religiously oriented meetings” as long as they did not interfere with employees’ duties, disturb staffers or had the potential to “coerce or intimidate others to join.”
The religious activities went beyond the parameters of OCA’s advice and contained “an element of implicit coercion” that “crossed the line into impropriety,” the judicial conduct commission said.
The commission noted that Brigantti-Hughes acknowledged her conduct was “improper,” both with the child care and prayer participation of her staff, and has promised not to do it again.
The commission said it agreed 9-0 that censure was the proper sanction, with commission member Richard Emery taking no part in the determination.
Brigantti-Hughes was elected to the Supreme Court bench in 2005. She had previously been a Civil and Criminal Court judge.
Pamela Tishman of the commission staff represented the panel. Ben Rubinowitz of Gair, Gair, Conason, Steigman, Mackauf, Bloom & Rubinowitz represented Brigantti-Hughes.