Queens Civil Court Judge Terrence O’Connor, who was described as “belligerent, rude and condescending” in a decision recommending his removal earlier this year, was officially removed from the bench by the New York Court of Appeals on Tuesday.
The high court said in a unanimous decision that aside from his behavior in the courtroom, his decision to not cooperate with an investigation by the State Commission on Judicial Conduct into his actions also contributed to his removal.
“Petitioner maintains that his underlying conduct, standing alone, would ordinarily result in no more than a censure, and that his failure to cooperate fully with the Commission’s investigation should not elevate the sanction to removal,” the court wrote. “We reject this argument.”
Jonathan Edelstein, managing partner at Edelstein & Grossman in Manhattan, was counsel for O’Connor before the Court of Appeals. He declined to comment on the decision.
Edelstein called O’Connor’s decision not to cooperate in the commission’s investigation into his misconduct a case of “pro se litigantitis” during arguments before the high court last month. O’Connor had chosen to initially represent himself before the commission.
After answering a written inquiry from the commission into his misconduct, O’Connor declined to participate in a hearing on the panel’s investigation.
But even if he had, his actions that led to the investigation were still inappropriate for a sitting judge, the Court of Appeals said Tuesday.
O’Connor was accused of a pattern of acting inappropriately toward attorneys, often in open court, through insults and his general behavior, the commission said when it recommended his removal earlier this year.
On at least one occasion, he chastised an attorney for using the word “OK” in response to a witness’ answers. That attorney, Pamela Smith of Stern & Stern, said during testimony before the commission that O’Connor had inappropriately limited her case during a nonjury trial in 2015.
O’Connor initially asked her to stop saying “OK” after her witness’ answers. Smith continued to accidentally use the word, calling it reflexive.
O’Connor struck her witness’ testimony from the record after she continued to say “OK” in response to the answers. He struck a second witness’ testimony when she did the same thing and then immediately granted a motion to dismiss from her opposing counsel. Smith told the commission the experience was “traumatizing.”
That wasn’t an isolated situation, according to the commission. Smith’s experience was just one example of the kind of behavior O’Connor exhibited frequently toward attorneys in court, the commission said.
The Court of Appeals said in its decision that those actions were unbecoming of someone who seeks to serve in a judicial role.
“Here, petitioner’s comments in open court were intemperate and inconsistent with appropriate judicial demeanor,” the court said. “In addition, his sustained pattern of inappropriate behavior evinced a lack of understanding of his role as a judge—most notably by disregarding the law and impinging on the fundamental right to be heard—thus eroding the public’s trust and confidence in the integrity of the judiciary.”
O’Connor’s decision to avoid the investigation into his misconduct compounded his problems. The court wrote in its decision that his choice to not cooperate undermined the public confidence in his position, which is central to cases involving judicial misconduct.
“Public confidence in the integrity of the judiciary has long been recognized as essential to its vitality as well as our overall system of government,” the court wrote. “If the public trust in the judiciary is to be maintained, as it must, those who don the robe and assume the role of arbiter of what is fair and just must do so with an acute appreciation both of their judicial obligations and of the Commission’s constitutional and statutory duties to investigate allegations of misconduct.”
O’Connor was not long for the office, even without the decision on his removal. He was supposed to retire from the bench in December. He was suspended with pay by the Court of Appeals in May while the high court mulled his removal. He earned $193,500 in the position.
He will now be immediately removed from the bench following the decision.
Robert Tembeckjian, administrator of the Commission on Judicial Conduct, said in a statement on Tuesday that the decision reaffirmed its argument that judges accused of misconduct must cooperate with their investigations.
“The vast majority of judges in New York State act honorably, mindful of their ethical responsibilities. Removal from office is therefore rare,” Tembeckjian said. “In determining that it was warranted as to Judge O’Connor, the Court of Appeals has forcefully reaffirmed two important principles of judicial conduct: that a judge is obliged to be patient, dignified and courteous with all who come before the court, and a judge is obliged to cooperate with the Commission’s inquiries.”
It wasn’t his first run-in with the commission. He was also censured in 2013 for continuing to serve as a fiduciary without approval after becoming a full-time judge and for failing to disclose that his residence was being targeted for foreclosure.