The Commission on Judicial Conduct Thursday called for the removal of Albany County Surrogate Cathryn Doyle (See Profile), alleging she improperly presided over several matters involving her personal attorney, an attorney who served as her campaign manager and a lawyer who represented her in a prior disciplinary action.
In a split determination, the commission said Doyle, who was previously censured in an unrelated matter, should have known from her prior brush with the panel that she needed to be “especially sensitive to her ethical obligations, including her duty to avoid even the appearance of impropriety.”
Two dissenting commissioners said Doyle’s conduct did not warrant “the extreme sanction of removal.”
Doyle, who has served as surrogate since 2001, was censured in 2007 when the commission found her testimony in a case involving a close personal friend, then Supreme Court Justice Thomas Spargo, “evasive and deceptive” as well as “misleading and obstructionist.”
Spargo was removed from the bench after the commission accused him of soliciting funds from lawyers appearing in his court to cover his legal expenses related to a misconduct investigation involving alleged violations of judicial campaign rules. He was later convicted in federal court of attempted bribery and sentenced in 2009 to a 27-month prison term (NYLJ, Dec. 23, 2009).
The most recent charges against Doyle alleged that after her 2007 censure she presided over: four matters involving Spargo; four matters involving Matthew Kelly, an attorney with Roemer Wallens & Mineaux in Albany who managed her 2010 reelection campaign and served as de facto manager of her unsuccessful 2007 campaign for a Supreme Court nomination; and one matter involving William Cade of Cade & Saunders in Albany, who represented her in the 2007 matter before the commission.
According to the determination released Thursday, Spargo, a close personal friend of Doyle’s for nearly 40 years, represented her in a personal injury matter and represented the judge and her husband in a property assessment dispute in 2008. Regardless of their long personal association and professional relationship, Doyle presided over several uncontested Surrogate Court matters in cases filed by Spargo, the commission said.
Similarly, the panel said, Doyle handled several estate matters submitted by Kelly, without disclosing his role in her campaigns, and one case submitted by Cade, without revealing that he had represented her in commission proceedings a year earlier.
Doyle argued that the Spargo, Kelly and Cade matters were all uncontested, one-party, non-discretionary issues where she generally did nothing other than perform “ministerial” services.
But the commission majority said that Doyle’s failure to recuse herself or disclose her relationships with the attorneys “cast doubt on her ability to be impartial” and “created an appearance of impropriety that undermines public confidence in the integrity and independence of the judiciary as a whole.”
It said Doyle’s conduct was exacerbated by her prior censure and demonstrated an insensitivity to her ethical obligations.
“Viewed in its entirety, and especially in light of her disciplinary history, respondent’s conduct shows an inability or unwillingness to adhere to the high standards of conduct required of judges and thus requires the sanction of removal,” the commission said. “By failing to disqualify herself or even to disclose the relationships, respondent did not act in a manner that promotes public confidence in the integrity and impartiality of the judiciary.”
The majority said that if Doyle, as she claimed, consulted the applicable mandates before deciding that she could preside over matters involving the three attorneys, “her conduct shows exceedingly poor judgment and an inability to recognize impropriety.”
In the majority were: Perinton Town Justice Thomas Klonick, chairman of the commission; Court of Claims Judge Terry Jane Ruderman, vice chair; Appellate Division, First Department, Justice Rolando Acosta; Joseph Belluck of Belluck & Fox in Manhattan; Joel Cohen of Stroock & Stroock & Lavan in Manhattan; Richard Emery of Emery Celli Brinckerhoff and Abady in Manhattan; Richard Stoloff of Stoloff & Silver in Monticello; and Jodie Corngold, director of communications for the Berkeley Carroll School in Brooklyn.
Commissioner Paul Harding of Martin, Harding & Mazzotti in Albany dissented in an opinion joined by Court of Claims Judge David Weinstein. Harding and Weinstein dissented only on the sanction, arguing that Doyle’s conduct warranted a censure, not removal from the bench.
Harding said that while Doyle should have recused herself from the matters involving Spargo, Kelly and Cade, there are no allegations that the attorneys or their clients received special treatment.
He also noted that the referee who took Doyle’s testimony found her to be “a credible and candid witness” who testified honestly.
But the majority found Doyle’s testimony in the most recent matter “evasive and misleading” and violative of “her obligation to be forthright and candid.”
The commission was represented by its counsel and administrator, Robert Tembeckjian, and Cathleen Cenci, the administrator in charge of the Albany office. Doyle was represented by William Dreyer of Dreyer Boyajian in Albany.
In a statement, Tembeckjian said judges “must scrupulously avoid even the appearance of favoritism” and it is “unfortunate that the experience of being censured for misconduct in 2007 did not heighten Judge Doyle’s sensitivity to judicial ethics and to the obligation to be candid and cooperative in a disciplinary proceeding.”
Doyle did not return a call for comment. Her attorney, Dreyer, was not immediately available.
The judge has 30 days to request review by the Court of Appeals before she is removed.
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