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ALBANY � When Supreme Court Justice Thomas W. Keegan retires at the end of this month, the judiciary loses not only a seasoned jurist and judicial administrator, but an imp in robes. “It’s been,” he admits, “one hell of a good ride.” Although the Third Judicial District administrative judge describes himself as “rather a law and order person, a conservative person,” Justice Keegan, 63, is known less for any judicial ideology than his creative approach to jurisprudence, his deft use of wit, and his trademark ability to charm and cajole procrastinating or blathering lawyers without being overbearing. He keeps tight control over his courtroom and his trials tend to proceed efficiently. His knack for encouraging settlements � “You can’t come to an agreement? Fine, be ready for trial in the morning.” � is uniquely effective, practitioners say. Between 1973 and 1989, Justice Keegan presided over 198,000 matters in Albany’s Police Court with a curious blend of firmness and humor. He seemed to attract the weirdest of cases, like the guy who killed and skinned his cat and ordered his wife to cook it, lest she face the same fate. Once, a chronic alcoholic and perpetual misdemeanant reappeared before Judge Keegan for the umpteenth time. The judge sternly reminded the defendant that the last time around he had cut him some slack and sent the alcoholic to detox rather than jail. “But judge, judge,” the defendant pleaded, “I don’t drink no more!” “And you don’t drink no less,” the judge responded. Off to jail. Another alcoholic intimately acquainted with Justice Keegan’s policy of shipping public intoxication offenders to the local lockup for 15 days of drying out after every third arrest, convinced the court that the latest transgression was only the second between jail stints. “OK,” the judge shrugged. “See ya tomorrow.” And there was the mad-at-the-world defendant who became so infuriated with Justice Keegan that the defendant grabbed the court Bible and winged it at the judge, striking him on the shoulder. That got him a room at the jail compliments of Albany County. Another incident a few years later, when the man threw something at another patron in a bar, got him beaten to death with a bar stool. Locally, Justice Keegan was known as the judge with a grin on his face, mischief in his heart, compassion in his soul and a loaded Walther pistol under his robes. Judge Keegan became synonymous with his court � a slightly bizarre judge handling slightly bizarre cases. “He played Police Court like a violin,” said Albany defense attorney Terence L. Kindlon of Kindlon & Shanks. “He is a very hard act to follow. I feel like they are taking the cornerstone out of the courthouse. He’s been there since the dawn of time.” Long before reality TV, Justice Keegan’s courtroom was a source of real-life entertainment for courthouse denizens. His signature manner of commencing court � bounding up to the bench with a big smile and literally open arms with his standard greeting: “Welcome to Police Court everybody!” � made his courtroom a warm and welcome venue for retirees, passers-by and even homeless people who wandered in to observe the latest episode of Keegan’s courtroom. Anyone watching could tell that the man with the gavel was having a blast. That, Justice Keegan said, is why he lasted far longer in the entry-level court than anyone else ever had, and far longer than some observers anticipated. Supreme Court Years After his promotion to County Court and then Supreme Court, Judge Keegan’s demeanor changed somewhat to reflect the seriousness of the matters over which he was presiding. The criminal defendants standing before him were looking at 30 years rather than 30 days. The civil litigants were disputing matters of life-altering importance rather than barking dogs and blaring stereos. There were no laughing matters. Still, the leprechaun in Justice Keegan was never far removed. Once, shortly after he became a justice of the Supreme Court (JSC), the judge was observed bopping down the courthouse hallway in robes, snapping his fingers and singing, “I’m a JSC � It’s Just So Cool . . . “ But beneath the good humor was a judge who, lawyers say, understood the law and the practice and, more importantly, the people of Albany. “Number one, he is very smart in a very practical way,” said Regina K. Treffiletti, the judge’s clerk for nearly 15 years. “He treats everyone the same, no matter who they are. I think people � litigants, defendants and lawyers � feel like he respects them. And he does.” High-Profile Cases Justice Keegan is no stranger to high-profile cases and has handled scores of murder trials and other matters garnering front-page coverage in the Capital Region. One of those cases, People v. Ruff, 185 AD2d 454, a matter in which a suspect in a child abuse case admitted to strangling his cousin more than 30 years earlier, attracted national attention. A critical, gnarly issue in the prosecution of Richard Ruff was whether the confession was valid and whether the right-to-counsel had attached. Justice Keegan, in a ruling upheld by the Court of Appeals, admitted the confession. Mr. Ruff was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life based on 1960s-era law. In another headliner, Justice Keegan sentenced the Reverend Al Sharpton to jail in 1988 on disorderly conduct charges stemming from a protest over the Tawana Brawley case. Ms. Brawley, a black teen, had claimed she was abducted and raped by a gang of white men. A grand jury concluded her story was a hoax. Mr. Sharpton was among Ms. Brawley’s advisors and an instigator of various demonstrations, including a traffic-stopper in Albany. And it was Justice Keegan’s decision in Vacco v. Spitzer, 179 Misc2d 584, that finally put an end to the seemingly endless 1998 campaign for attorney general, which brought Eliot Spitzer to Albany and sent Dennis Vacco back to Buffalo. In 1989, the judge declined to force a murder suspect to undergo surgery so authorities could recover a bullet allegedly fired by the victim ( People v. Richard, 145 Misc2d 755). The defendant was convicted, though the evidence sought by the prosecution remains in his shoulder. Veronica Gabrielli Keegan, who prosecuted sex cases in Justice Keegan’s court long before she married him on Sept. 22, 2001, said she immediately grasped the key to practicing before her future husband � be prepared and cut to the quick. “He expected everybody to be prepared, and if you were prepared you had his respect,” Mrs. Keegan said. “I learned fairly quickly that when you’ve made your point, you’ve made it and you don’t need to hammer it home. There’s sort of a short fuse on that.” One of the things that attracted her to Justice Keegan, though, was observing the love and care he displayed for his elderly mother. “When a man is good to his mother, you know he has a warm heart,” said Mrs. Keegan, daughter of late Court of Appeals Judge Domenick L. Gabrielli. “He is wonderful to his mother. That tells you a little about the personality of the man.” Justice Keegan’s work as administrative judge has also been praised, and he is credited with managing the local judiciary fairly and implementing common-sense policies to make proceedings more efficient and to eliminate much of the down time that wastes judicial resources. He has, however, come under some criticism. In the mid-1970s, Justice Keegan was chastised by the Albany chapter of the NAACP for setting a particularly high bail in the case of a black man accused of shooting at two white police officers. Additionally, some advocates for the poor and for women have occasionally griped that Judge Keegan was insensitive and that his off-the-cuff quips were sometimes offensive. On the other hand, Justice Keegan has been praised by many local civil rights leaders for going out of his way to help minority kids, drug addicts and alcoholics. “Most people want the same things everyone else wants,” Justice Keegan said, reflecting on the lessons he learned in his years at Police Court. “They want tomorrow to be a little easier than today. They want something better for their children than they had. These are common human aspirations. I learned how to treat people with respect.” Also, in 1980 Judge Keegan was censured in connection with a ticket-fixing matter when the Commission on Judicial Conduct accused him of using court stationery, as well as his private letterhead, in correspondence to other judges seeking special consideration for 11 individuals who had received traffic tickets. Judge Keegan responded by saying that it may have been “imprudent” to use official stationery, but insisted he had done nothing improper. The censure reemerged as an issue several years later when Justice Keegan applied for a federal district judgeship. Democratic Roots Justice Keegan is deeply rooted in the Albany community, and its Democratic political machine. His grandfather, Edward “Owney” Keegan, had been a legendary political operative � so legendary that even though Owney Keegan died when the future judge was only 7, the Keegan name was enough to get a newly minted graduate of Villanova University School of Law a government post. He began his career writing legal memos for the state Commerce Department and quickly landed a position in the Albany Corporation Counsel’s Office. That job put him in close contact with the mayor, Erastus Corning III, a larger-than-life local figure who wielded unbridled power in Albany. At Mayor Corning’s insistence, the future judge ran for district attorney in 1971, when he was all of 30 years old and little but a sacrificial lamb for the Democratic Party. He was trounced by the Republican incumbent. “I ran my heart out for six months and came up short, which was probably the best thing that could have happened to me,” Justice Keegan recalled. “It made me known to the public. My private practice tripled in business in the year following the election � and I came to the attention of Mayor Corning.” Mayor Corning rewarded him two years later with a part-time appointment to Police Court bench, where he remained for more than 16 years. In 1989, the local Democratic organization promoted Justice Keegan for a full-time Albany Court position, where he dealt almost exclusively with felonies. Two years later, he was on the Supreme Court, which handled mainly civil cases in the Albany area. In 1998, Justice Keegan was appointed administrative judge for the Third Judicial District. On March 31, Justice Keegan will leave the bench and move to a new lakeside home in North Carolina in the new Chevrolet Silverado pickup truck he bought last week. Despite suffering a minor stroke in October, his health is sound and he is looking forward to fishing on Lake Norman. Governor George E. Pataki is likely to appoint a successor, who would then be subject to election in November. Meanwhile, nine judges are vying for the administrative post. Recently interviewed for the spot were Supreme Court Justices E. Michael Kavanagh of Kingston, Bernard J. Malone Jr. of Albany, George B. Ceresia Jr. of Troy, Joseph C. Teresi of Albany and Leslie E. Stein of Albany; and Albany County Judge Thomas A. Breslin, Albany County Family Court Judge Gerard E. Maney, Rensselaer County Surrogate Christian F. Hummel and Sullivan County Family Court Judge Mark M. Meddaugh.

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