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The Queens judge who sparked an uproar when she helped a defendant escape arrest through a back exit of the courthouse should be removed from the bench, a disciplinary panel ruled Tuesday in one of its most contentious decisions on record. The judge, Supreme Court Justice Laura D. Blackburne, was immediately taken off active duty by the Office of Court Administration. She faces a lengthy suspension and then, if the Court of Appeals affirms the disciplinary ruling, the end of her nine-year judicial career. In a 9-2 vote that included a forceful dissent, the majority of the Commission on Judicial Conduct said the judge brought the judiciary into “disrepute” when in June 2004 she ordered a court officer to escort the defendant from the courthouse via a private stairwell. Blackburne, 67, was under the impression that a detective, who was waiting outside the courtroom to arrest the defendant for an alleged robbery, had tried to mislead the court about his intentions. The defendant eventually was arrested, but the charges were dismissed. The commission found that at best there had been a miscommunication about the detective’s intentions. It concluded that the judge’s “devious maneuver” — decried at the time by the police department and the press — “transcended the boundaries of acceptable judicial behavior.” “She placed herself above the law she is sworn to uphold and abused the power of her office, utilizing court personnel and court facilities to accomplish her goal of thwarting a lawful arrest,” the commission wrote. In asking for the judge’s removal, the counsel to the commission, Robert Tembeckjian, noted Blackburne’s initial reaction to her behavior. According to commission records, the judge told a supervising district attorney, “I guess I really made a boo-boo.” “This is more than goofing up,” Tembeckjian argued to the commission. The majority rejected arguments that Blackburne’s actions were in part explained by the nature of the Drug Treatment Court, which places paramount importance on establishing trust between judges and their “clients,” who are fighting addiction. “Treatment courts are special and important, but this conduct would have been wrong no matter where it occurred,” Tembeckjian said in an interview Tuesday. Two dissenting members of the commission, however, said Blackburne had taken responsibility for her actions and had apologized. They stressed that the judge posed no threat to the public, adding that even the majority had concluded that she would not repeat her mistake. One dissenter, Richard D. Emery of Emery Celli Cuti Brinckerhoff & Abady, called the punishment “unprecedented and unfair.” The other, Stephen R. Coffey of O’Connell & Aronowitz, said Blackburne was not “unfit” or “unethical,” but “merely human.” The dissenters said this was the first time the commission had recommended removal for an error in judgment that did not include venal conduct or an action taken in self-interest. Emery noted three instances in which judges had received only a public censure for conduct he said was more egregious. Two members of the majority, Christina Hernandez, a member of the New York State Crime Victims Board, and Appellate Division, 3rd Department Justice Karen K. Peters, said the decision to remove the judge was difficult in light of her long record of public service, which includes time as the chair of the New York City Housing Authority and as pro bono counsel for the NAACP. “I take into consideration that respondent has been a role model for women of color,” Hernandez wrote. “I also believe that respondent was genuinely trying to protect the interests of a defendant who, as she testified, she ‘believed at the time needed protecting.’” Richard Godosky of Godosky & Gentile, who represented Blackburne, said his client would challenge the determination at the Court of Appeals. “I disagree with every part of it,” Godosky said. “They are hanging their hat on thin air. This is a woman who has devoted her life to public service, has never asked for anything, is not known in any way for being corrupt — you call any of those lawyers in the civil part and they will tell you how great she is with plaintiffs and defendants.” He said the judge would have no comment. A ‘RUSE’ FOR ARREST Blackburne was transferred from the Treatment Court to Civil Court after the 2004 incident was made public. In June of that year, she was scheduled to hear the status of Derek Sterling, a defendant charged with selling drugs who had enrolled in the treatment program. A veteran court officer, Sergeant Richard Peterson, informed the judge that a detective was waiting outside the courtroom to question Sterling about a robbery. Blackburne assigned an attorney from the 18-B panel to represent Sterling and asked the attorney to talk with the detective. The attorney then informed Blackburne that the detective planned to arrest Sterling. Blackburne became upset, apparently concluding that the detective had concocted a “ruse” — that he wanted to question Sterling — in order to arrest him. The judge ordered Peterson to escort Sterling out the back stairwell reserved for judges, jurors and court staff. The request stunned Peterson, according to his testimony. He later asked the judge whether it would be an obstruction of justice to help Sterling escape arrest. He complied after the judge said she would escort Sterling herself if the court officer refused. Queens Assistant District Attorney Sharon Scott Brooking also expressed reservations about the order. She suggested that the treatment program would suffer if Sterling was arrested at his treatment center instead of inside the courthouse. After Sterling was released, Blackburne returned to her chambers. She summoned Kenneth Holder, a senior Queens district attorney in charge of prosecutors in the treatment court, to her chambers to discuss the program, according to her testimony before the commission. Holder entered her chambers and said, “You don’t know what’s happening, do you?” He explained that her actions had created an uproar. Blackburne asked, “Why, what’s up?” When Holder told the judge more, she said, “Well, if I had to do it again, I would do it a different way, simple.” Later that evening, she told Justice Leslie G. Leach, the administrative judge, “I’m sorry that I messed up.” SHARP CRITICISM The majority of the commission was unsparing in its criticism of Blackburne, despite noting that “removal is not normally to be imposed for conduct that amounts to poor judgment, even extremely poor judgment.” “It is striking that respondent failed to recognize the impropriety of her directive, which was readily apparent to court personnel; it is more striking that even when the court officer and prosecutor expressed their concerns to respondent, she failed to reconsider her plan.” Emery countered that the majority’s ruling was “legally and equitably wrong” and amounted to “career capital punishment.” He noted the impressive credentials of Blackburne’s character witnesses, who included former Mayor David Dinkins, Congressman Charles B. Rangel, and Appellate Division, 2nd Department, Justice Steven W. Fisher, who assigned Blackburne to the Drug Treatment Court when he was the administrative judge in Queens. “None of these eminent and accomplished jurists and leaders would vouch for Justice Blackburne in the face of her clear misconduct unless each believed it was aberrant and that it was in the public interest for her to remain on the bench,” Emery wrote. “Loyalty or personal relationship, in my view, could not distort the recommendations and predictions of any of these esteemed witnesses.” Emery cited three cases in which judges received a lesser sanction, public censure, for behavior he found more reprehensible. In Matter of Friess, 1982 Annual Report 109, Alan I. Friess, a Criminal Court judge in Brooklyn, released a murder defendant into his own custody, took her to his home overnight and provided her with counsel for a subsequent court appearance. In Matter of Mills, 2005 Annual Report 185, Judge Douglas C. Mills of the Saratoga Springs City Court held an acquitted, unrepresented defendant in an isolation cell for five days, and also doctored a contempt order. Mills is still a judge. In Matter of Dusen, 2005 Annual Report 155, Charles E. Dusen, a justice of the LeRoy Town Court, Genesee County, released an incarcerated defendant by issuing an illegal court order and fabricating a conviction so he would be deported. Referring to the Dusen case, Emery said, “Apparently, the majority’s view is that frustrating a proper arrest is more ‘egregious’ than facilitating an illegal conviction and deportation.” The majority rebutted these arguments by emphasizing the severity of the judge’s actions. “Comparable conduct by an attorney, court staff or any officer of the court would certainly subject the individual to the severest sanctions,” the majority wrote. “For a judge, whose enormous powers and commensurate responsibilities require the judge to be held to the highest standards of behavior, it is simply intolerable.”

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