A Queens Civil Court judge’s refusal to participate in the formal state disciplinary proceedings he reportedly referred to as a “fucking clown show” have led the Commission on Judicial Conduct to seek his removal from the bench.
Judge Terrence O’Connor was accused of repeatedly being discourteous and belligerent to attorneys and witnesses in his courtroom. But the commission’s decision to recommend his removal was piqued by O’Connor’s behavior towards the commission itself.
“Judges are obliged to cooperate with official disciplinary inquiries into their behavior. Public confidence in the integrity of the judiciary requires nothing less,” Commission Administrator Robert Tembeckjian said in a statement. “Failing to cooperate, and acting in a manner intended to thwart an ethics inquiry, is itself misconduct, often more serious than the underlying misbehavior. Judge O’Connor was removed from office for his intransigence.”
This wasn’t O’Connor’s first run-in with the commission. In 2013, O’Connor was censured for continuing to serve as a fiduciary after becoming a full-time judge, among other breaches.
In its filings, the commission noted that all but one of the instances underlying the current disciplinary action against him occurred after the 2013 censure. In one instance, the commission said O’Connor lashed out at an inexperienced attorney for using his cellphone to try to contact his employer, after unexpectedly being ordered by O’Connor to try a case immediately.
O’Connor reportedly yelled at the attorney, “Is there some course in law school now, how to be discourteous and how to be rude? Because if there is, you must have gotten an ‘A’ in it.”
He then reportedly accused the attorney of smirking and said, “I’m glad you think it’s funny … No wonder people think lawyers are a disgrace. It’s people like you who give them that impression.”
In two other cases, which involved attorneys who said “OK” after their witnesses’ answers, the commission said O’Connor accused the attorneys of trying to lead their witnesses during bench trials. He then issued rulings striking the witnesses’ testimony and dismissing the petitions for insufficient proof, which the commission said were abuses of judicial power that penalized the litigants, subjecting them to undue litigation costs and unnecessary delays.
O’Connor’s actions in nine no-fault insurance cases, where he issued sua sponte awards of counsel fees upon granting defendants’ motions for dismissal or summary judgment represented a failure to comply with court-mandated procedures governing such awards, the commission said. The attorneys in those cases never had an opportunity to address whether such an award was appropriate and, if so, the appropriate amount.
Yet it was the proceedings to address the allegations—from the initial hearings to his responses, or lack thereof, after receiving a formal complaint—that drew the commission’s ire.
O’Connor was first advised he was being investigated in September 2016. After alerting the appointed referee that his counsel had passed away, the date O’Connor was given to come to the commission’s office to testify was pushed back to early March 2017. At the hearing, O’Connor appeared without counsel, claimed he wasn’t prepared to proceed because the records he needed were held by his former attorney, which he couldn’t retrieve because no executor had been appointed by the estate.
O’Connor refused to be sworn in without counsel present. He was told that proceedings would be postponed, but failing to appear at the future date would lead to charges he was failing to cooperate. In a footnote in the commission’s report, an “agitated and upset” O’Connor reportedly was overheard stating on his departure, “This place is a fucking clown show.”
That was the last time O’Connor would appear at any of the scheduled hearings over the next 11 months. After failing to show at the later testimony hearing, despite the commission sending him all of the material connected to his case, O’Connor reportedly stated in a letter to the commission: “Based on the blatant lies in your most recent letter, it is clear that nothing you are involved with would be remotely fair and thus I decline your invitation to appear…” The commission noted that the proceedings were not an invitation, but a mandate.
“[W]e can only conclude that respondent engaged in a pattern of conduct designed to withhold his cooperation and to delay the commission’s investigation,” the commission stated in its final determination.
It went on: “In conducting its investigation, the commission must balance two crucial interests: safeguarding the rights of judges to due process and the opportunity to present a defense to charges that can significantly impact their careers, and protecting the public interest in expeditiously investigating and sanctioning judicial misconduct, so as to ensure that the legal system operates in a fair and impartial manner. This difficult balancing act is made impossible when judges flout the commission’s efforts, refuse to cooperate with its investigative proceedings, and engage in tactics clearly intended to hinder proper fact-finding. That is precisely what occurred in this case.”
After failing to appear at numerous hearings, the referee filed his report in December 2017. The commission recommended confirming the report. O’Connor opposed the recommendations by letter. In February, oral arguments were held. O’Connor did not appear.
O’Connor has served as a Civil Court judge in Queens since 2009. His current term expires at the end of this year. A member of the clerk’s office, responding to a request to speak to the judge on Wednesday, said he was on the bench and unavailable.