A Long Island town justice who steered a defendant to his business partner for legal representation, imposed hundreds of illegal fines and made improper political contributions has been censured by the state Commission on Judicial Conduct.
The commission unanimously voted to censure Southampton Town Justice Edward Burke Sr. even though its administrator and counsel recommended removing him from the bench.
“I prosecute the case and recommend a result, but the commission makes the decision,” Robert Tembeckjian, the agency’s administrator and top lawyer, said in a statement. “Sometimes we agree and sometimes we do not. Obviously, in this case, we did not.”
Burke, a judge for 20 years with an otherwise unblemished record, was a Southampton town justice between 1994 and 2000 and a Court of Claims and acting Supreme Court judge from 2000 to 2007. He returned to the part-time, $67,100 town judgeship in 2008 after retiring from the Court of Claims. He is also a name partner in Burke & Sullivan in Southampton.
The commission sustained charges that Burke:
• Rode in a police car with a defendant he had just arraigned on a drunken driving charge, and recommended the defendant hire Tina Piette of Amagansett, an attorney who was his business partner in a real estate project. He then presided over the defendant’s application for a hardship license. Burke acknowledged that it was improper to hold such an ex parte conversation with a defendant and endorse his business partner as a lawyer. However, he said he considered the hardship license a purely administrative task that did not disqualify him from the proceeding.
• Used his judicial title to promote his law firm. The Burke & Sullivan website touted Burke as “an outstanding and respected jurist” who had “earned the respect and trust of his colleagues and the public through the fair and wise administration of justice.” Burke testified that he had nothing to do with the website’s content but admitted he never told his staff to avoid using his judicial position to publicize the firm.
• Imposed illegal fines in vehicle and traffic law cases at least 200 times. Records show that Burke frequently levied fines of $200, even though the court clerk had advised him that the maximum allowable was $150. At his hearing, Burke said that after speaking with the clerk, he began asking defendants to waive the fine limits in exchange for a plea to a no-point infraction and a reduced charge.
• Allowed the Burke & Sullivan law firm and his real estate company, Edward D. Burke Realty Co., to make improper contributions to political organizations, candidates and politically sponsored events.
The commission was most troubled by the incident in the police car, saying it “showed extremely poor judgment.”
“Compounding the impropriety, respondent violated the prohibition against ex parte communications by engaging defendant in a discussion about his case, not only encouraging him to apply for a hardship driver’s license but also recommending that he hire a particular attorney,” it said.
The commission also said that by disregarding the clerk’s warning about the illegal fines, Burke violated the requirement “to maintain professional competence.” It found irrelevant Burke’s explanation that other judges also imposed improper fines and, on occasion, the district attorney recommended the fine amount.
Additionally, the panel said that Burke, with his extensive experience as a judge, should have known that it was improper for his law firm and his realty business to make more than 30 political contributions, totaling about $7,500.
“[Burke] should have been more sensitive to his obligation to ensure that his law firm and business adhered to the strict limitations on political contributions,” the commission said. “The onus was on respondent to ensure that his law firm and business were in compliance with the ethical rules.”
On the panel were: Perinton Town Justice Thomas Klonick, chairman; Court of Claims Judge Terry Jane Ruderman, vice chair; Appellate Division, First Department, Justice Rolando Acosta; Joel Cohen, of counsel to Stroock & Stroock & Lavan in Manhattan; Jodie Corngold, the communications director at Berkeley Carroll School in Brooklyn; Richard Emery, a partner at Emery Celli Brinckerhoff & Abady in Manhattan; Paul Harding, managing partner with Martin, Harding & Mazzotti in Albany; Paul Stoloff, a partner at Stoloff & Silver in Monticello; and Court of Claims Judge David Weinstein. Joseph Belluck, a partner in the Manhattan firm of Belluck & Fox, did not take part.
The commission was represented by Tembeckjian and principal attorney Pamela Tishman. Paul Shechtman, a partner at Zuckerman Spaeder, appeared for Burke.
“Judge Burke made mistakes in judgment, but as the commission recognized, there was never any suggestion that he abused his judicial office,” Shechtman said. “He is a widely respected judge who has served the Southampton community with distinction.”
Tembeckjian said that despite the commission rejecting his recommendation to remove Burke’s from office, “we each respect the other’s views. I accept the commission’s decision, and we move on to other matters.”