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Sol Wachtler, former chief judge of the New York Court of Appeals, who served 13 months in prison after admitting that he had threatened to kidnap an ex-girlfriend’s 14-year-old daughter, has cleared a first hurdle toward reinstatement to the practice of law. In a brief order, a panel of the Appellate Division, 2nd Department, on Feb. 6 referred Wachtler’s application for reinstatement to the court’s Character and Fitness Committee for evaluation, including a report from his treating physician. When Wachtler last applied for reinstatement in 2003, the application was denied without a referral to the Character and Fitness Committee. Wachtler could not be reached for comment. The name of his attorney, along with all other material related to the application, is by law under seal. Presiding Justice A. Gail Prudenti, and Justices Howard Miller, Robert W. Schmidt, Stephen G. Crane and David S. Ritter were on the panel. Barry Kamins of Flamhaft Levy Kamins Hirsch & Rendeiro, a former chairman of the grievance committee which oversees lawyers in Brooklyn and Queens, called the referral “an important step” because it shows that the court was “not of a mind to reject the application as the papers now stand.” Hal R. Lieberman, a former chief counsel of the 1st Department’s disciplinary committee who is now a partner at Hinshaw & Culbertson, said the referral means that Wachtler has passed the “threshold” for reinstatement but “still bears the burden of proving by clear and convincing evidence that he has the requisite character and fitness to be reinstated.” Wachtler, who was on the Court of Appeals for 20 years, seven of them as chief, resigned in 1992, three days after he was arrested for a harassment campaign against his former girlfriend, Joy Silverman. He subsequently admitted engaging in a 13-month campaign of hang-up calls and anonymous, obscene letters that he had hoped would force Silverman to turn to him for help after she ended their four-year affair. Following his guilty plea to a felony in New Jersey federal court, Wachtler resigned from the bar, even though the federal crime was not a felony under New York law and would not have brought automatic disbarment. The Appellate Division, 2nd Department accepted the resignation and disbarred him on Aug. 5, 1993. According to news reports, he suffered from drug-induced bipolar disorder. A polished and self-assured chief, Wachtler led the Court of Appeals in developing free-speech and search-and-seizure precedents that broke with more conservative rulings from the U.S. Supreme Court under the leadership of its then-Chief Justice Warren Burger. He also wrote decisions embracing the right-to-die in New York and eliminating a marital exemption from rape charges. At one point, he was considered a potential Republican candidate for governor. While in prison, he wrote an autobiography, “After the Madness: A Judge’s Own Prison Memoir,” in which he advocated for prison reform. Wachtler, 76, is now an adjunct professor at Touro Law Center and chief executive of Comprehensive Alternative Dispute Resolution Enterprises.

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