Justice Kamins
Justice Kamins (NYLJ/Rick Kopstein)

Brooklyn Supreme Court Justice Barry Kamins is going back to work next week as a civil court judge in Queens, while a judicial ethics panel investigates allegations that the jurist improperly served as a behind-the-scenes political advisor to embattled former District Attorney Charles “Joe” Hynes.

David Bookstaver, a spokesman for the Office of Court Administration, and Kamins’ attorney, Zuckerman Spaeder partner Paul Shechtman, confirmed Tuesday that Kamins will serve in the civil term of Queens Supreme Court. Both declined to elaborate.

Kamins has been on vacation leave for the past several weeks, after a report by the New York City Department of Investigation (DOI) showed that the judge provided political and legal advice to Hynes, an old friend, throughout 2013 as the longtime Brooklyn district attorney mounted an increasingly desperate and ultimately unsuccessful bid for re-election (NYLJ, June 3).

Most of the report centered on Hynes, and on allegations that he may have improperly used drug forfeiture and other seized assets to pay a political consultant.

But it also included snippets from several of the approximately 300 emails in which Kamins advised Hynes on campaign strategy, offered legal advice and discussed pending cases and their political implications. Additionally, the report suggests that Kamins attempted to use connections with the media, including the New York Law Journal, to advance Hynes’ candidacy. There are no allegations that Kamins did anything illegal or directly compromised his office.

When the report was released, the Office of Court Administration (OCA) immediately relieved Kamins of his duties as chief of planning and policy for the state courts and chief administrator for the New York City Criminal Court.

But it was essentially powerless to take any other action. Unless a judge is accused of an offense of moral turpitude, OCA lacks authority to suspend or otherwise discipline a jurist for an ethical transgression.

Consequently, Kamins has a right to serve in the constitutional position to which he was elected and is entitled to his $174,000 base salary, pending an investigation by the Commission on Judicial Conduct, officials said.

Sources said the only real question for OCA was where to place Kamins while the probe continues, and opted to put him in another borough and in a civil court where his apparently cozy relationship with Hynes would not be an issue.

It is unclear how long the commission’s investigation will take.

Kamins is serving a two-year stint as a “certificated” Supreme Court justice, a designation that allows him to remain on the bench even though he has passed the mandatory retirement age of 70. His certification expires at the end of 2015, but OCA could permit him to serve another four years past that—unless, of course, the commission removes him from office.

Support From the Bar

Meanwhile, several prominent attorneys are publicly standing behind Kamins, who, until the DOI report raised questions about his judgment, was viewed as an exemplary, widely respected and highly ethical member of the bar and bench.

The commission has disciplined several judges for engaging in prohibited political activity, and the sanction has ranged from an admonition to removal. But few, if any, left a paper trail as extensive as the emails between Kamins and Hynes.

Most of the disciplined judges were punished for at most a few prohibited forays into politics. With Kamins and his long email train, there are potentially hundreds of questionable forays (NYLJ, June 4).

Although none of the seven well-known attorneys interviewed by the Law Journal would comment on whether the sheer volume of Kamins’ alleged transgressions, or the apparent fact that he had a number of ex parte discussions with a prosecutor on pending cases, should end his judicial career, they all spoke to his reputation for integrity, diligence and professionalism.

“Barry Kamins in my view is an outstanding lawyer and was an outstanding judge who made a very, very, very serious error in judgment,” said former Corporation Counsel Michael Cardozo, now a partner at Proskauer Rose. “I, for one, would have no hesitancy having my clients appear before him and believe we would get a completely fair trial.”

Carey Dunne, a partner at Davis Polk & Wardwell, and like Kamins a former president of the New York City Bar Association, agreed.

“I think he is a great public servant and great jurist and I believe everyone who knows or has appeared before him would agree with that,” Dunne said. “If he is allowed to return to the bench in any capacity, that is a great benefit to the court system and any litigant.”

John Dunne, a retired state senator who is now senior counsel to Whiteman Osterman & Hanna in Albany, said Kamins “is an outstanding citizen and an extraordinarily talented lawyer who has given his life to public service.” Dunne has served with Kamins on numerous bar associations and court system committees and commissions.

“I think he should continue serving the public,” the former senator said. “He is just an extraordinary human being. I have worked with Barry on a variety of matters and I am a great fan. He represents all the things that are great about the profession and the courts.”

Barry Scheck, director of the Innocence Project and a professor at Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law, said there was “no question” that Kamins’ close alliance with Hynes was “troubling and serious.” But he said it appeared that the judge’s ill-advised immersion in politics “looks like a lapse in judgment by someone who … has always been a very empathetic, sensible, wise and very, very bright man.”

“He has always had an excellent reputation,” Scheck said. “Everyone who has ever dealt with him feels he is a good person and a good jurist. We were all shocked by this. He is a fine judge and fine colleague.”

E. Leo Milonas, a former chief administrative judge who is now a litigation partner at Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman, said Kamins has distinguished himself throughout his career, as a criminal defense attorney and partner at Flamhaft Levy Kamins Hirsch and Rendeiro in Brooklyn, as president of what was then the Association of the Bar of the City of New York and as a judge.

“He is a terrific judge. He made a great City Bar president. He is, in my mind, a leader in the legal and judicial community,” Milonas said.

Alan Levine, a partner at Cooley LLP, said he is pleased that “pending the judicial commission proceedings, Judge Kamins will be given the opportunity to do what he does best, which is sitting as a judge.”

Levine, a former chairman of the Legal Aid Society, said Kamins, through his career as a defense attorney, bar leader, judge and administrative judge, has proven to be “very responsible and fair-minded.”

Bernice Leber, a former New York State Bar Association president and partner at Arent Fox, said she has known Kamins for decades and has always considered him “a strong and certainly scholarly lawyer and judge.” Leber noted that Kamins was the first City Bar president ever who was not from Manhattan.

“He has had such a distinguished career as a dedicated public servant,” Leber said. “He was instrumental in chairing the lawyer advertising committee with me and helped draft the ethical rules that we now have, and then ran my wrongful conviction task force when I was president. I have the highest regard for him.”

Robert Tembeckjian, administrator and counsel to the Commission on Judicial Conduct, refused to discuss Kamins.

In general, however, Tembeckjian said “it is the commission’s obligation to follow the facts wherever they may lead in an investigation, and to take appropriate disciplinary action, without regard for whether the judge in question holds a high, low or middle rank in the judicial hierarchy.”

Bookstaver said Deputy Chief Administrative Judge Lawrence Marks will continue to carry Kamins’ administrative duties for the time being.

Kamins remains a member of the Law Journal’s editorial board. He also has written a regular criminal law column for the Law Journal.