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A state Supreme Court justice who was admonished for stating his position on abortion to help win election cannot challenge his penalty in federal court. John LaCava, a justice in the 9th Judicial District, claimed his 1999 admonishment by the New York State Commission on Judicial Conduct should be reversed because the U.S. Supreme Court, in Republican Party of Minnesota v. White, said candidates for judicial office cannot be stopped from informing the public about their views on controversial political issues. But Southern District of New York Judge Colleen McMahon said she lacked jurisdiction because her review of LaCava’s case would violate the Rooker-Feldman doctrine, which holds that federal courts lack jurisdiction to review claims that involve direct review of state court decisions. McMahon also said the U.S. Supreme Court’s White decision does not apply retroactively to LaCava’s claim. LaCava was a Westchester County Court judge in 1998 when he ran for a seat in the 9th Judicial District. During the campaign, he sent a letter to the Right-to-Life Party describing himself as a “pro-life” candidate. The existence of that letter and other statements on his abortion position appeared in a newspaper article as he went on to win election. The commission charged him with violating the New York State Rules on Judicial Conduct, 22 NYCRR Sections 100.1, 100.2 and 100.5(A)(4)(d)(i)-(ii), for making statements that committed or appeared to commit him with respect to cases, controversies or issues likely to come before the court. LaCava agreed to be admonished by the commission. But in 2002, months after the U.S. Supreme Court decided White, he asked the commission to reconsider, arguing that he would not have been disciplined under that ruling. When his application was denied, the judge filed suit saying the commission’s refusal to reopen the case and vacate his admonition, in light of White, violated his First and 14th Amendment rights. He also argued that the Rooker-Feldman doctrine, which is based on the notion that only the U.S. Supreme Court may review a state court decision, did not control. McMahon disagreed, saying, under the doctrine, the “true measure of the claim is best revealed by the relief sought.” The Rooker-Feldman doctrine, she said, holds that “federal courts lack jurisdiction to review claims that would involve direct review of state court decisions and also claims that are ‘inextricably intertwined’ with a state court decision, or cases that seek relief, if granted, would modify a state court decision.” In order to grant LaCava the relief he sought, she said, “I would have to modify — indeed, overturn — the decision of a body that is an arm of the Unified Court System of the State of New York, operating as part of a single, unitary, adjudicatory process for disciplining judges. Rooker-Feldman bars me from doing any such thing.” “While the matter has not been adjudicated in this circuit, the Third, Fourth and Fifth Circuits have all held that Rooker-Feldman bars federal district courts from overturning the decision of state judicial disciplinary bodies that, like defendant Commission, hold hearings, take evidence and issue judicial disciplinary decisions that are appealable as of right to the highest court of a state,” McMahon said. It was the second victory within a week for the Commission on Judicial Conduct. Last Tuesday, the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals found that a federal district court should have abstained in the case of Albany Supreme Court Justice Thomas Spargo, who must now go before the commission on charges that include violations of rules restricting political activity by judges or judicial candidates. McMahon took note of the Spargo decision in dismissing LaCava’s complaint, saying that, in view of Spargo, “I am confident our own Court of Appeals would reach the same result.” Assistant Attorney General Elizabeth A. Forman represented New York state. James M. Rose represented LaCava.

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