Brooklyn Supreme Court Justice Barry Kamins and then District Attorney Charles Hynes before the Democratic primary during which the city Department of Investigation says Kamins aided his old friend. (NYLJ/Rick Kopstein)
With a lengthy paper trail of emails, the judicial misconduct case against popular and well-regarded Brooklyn Supreme Court Justice Barry Kamins will be difficult to defend, observers say, and may leave only the question of whether the judge’s foray into politics will end in a reprimand, his resignation or removal from office.
According to a report by the New York City Department of Investigation (DOI), Kamins may have violated the Code of Judicial Conduct—specifically the ban on direct or indirect political activity—by providing political and legal advice to an old friend, Charles “Joe” Hynes, as the longtime Brooklyn district attorney mounted a desperate and ultimately unsuccessful re-election battle last year.
Violations of those provisions have resulted in disciplinary action against judges at least 16 times, ending a few judicial careers.
Hynes, who had been in office 23 years before being defeated by Kenneth Thompson, is the target of a report alleging the ex-district attorney essentially ran a political operation out of his public office and misused money seized from drug dealers and other criminals to pay a political consultant. The investigation was triggered by referrals from two government entities, neither of which was identified in the report.
A spokeswoman for Thompson said the district attorney received a subpoena from the DOI shortly after taking office and “has cooperated fully by providing all documents pertinent to their investigation.” The New York Attorney General’s office said it could not comment “on potential or ongoing investigations.”
Kamins figures prominently in the DOI report, which alleges the judge strayed far beyond the bounds of judicial propriety by providing the district attorney with political insight and legal advice.
According to the report, Kamins, the chief administrator of the New York City Criminal Court and chief of planning and policy for the state courts, sent Hynes at least 300 emails—most from his official email account. He also received or was mentioned in some 800 of Hynes’ emails.
“Many of these e-mails demonstrate that Judge Kamins engaged in political activity as a sitting judge, i.e., by advising Hynes regarding his campaign, and that he also engaged in communications with Hynes regarding matters actively being prosecuted by the [Brooklyn district attorney] and provided Hynes with legal advice,” according to the 27-page report.
The emails indicate that Kamins was an active adviser to Hynes, sometimes serving as a sounding board and sometimes proposing political strategy.
Kamins was among several prominent figures whom Hynes consulted, including former Chief Judge Sol Wachtler, former Court of Appeals Judge Joseph Bellacosa, a number of his assistants and Dennis Quirk, president of the New York State Court Officers Association, who served as campaign manager, records show. But he is the only sitting judge identified in the report who was actively involved in the Hynes campaign.
“Judge Kamins appears to have, among other things, regularly advised Hynes regarding advantageous political endorsements, provided feedback on Hynes’ public statements, assisted Hynes in his preparation for televised debates, and communicated with other individuals on Hynes’ behalf regarding campaign-related activity,” the DOI said in a report issued by its commissioner, Mark Peters. “In addition to acting as Hynes’ campaign advisor, Judge Kamins lent the prestige of his position to secure positive media coverage and endorsements for the Hynes campaign.”
For instance, on June 3, 2012, shortly before then Manhattan Assistant District Attorney Abe George announced his plan to challenge Hynes in the Democratic primary, Kamins emailed Hynes suggesting that he dig through the challenger’s record, and noting that then Chief Assistant Manhattan District Attorney Daniel Alonso had indicated that George was only an “average” trial assistant.
“It would be good at some point to get his record of trials … this will be important to know—not for negative campaigning but to present an incredibly stark comparison for voters,” Kamins wrote.
In other emails, Kamins discussed a problem in securing the Satmar vote, offered legal advice, and described how pending matters might affect Hynes’ public image.
Records show Hynes and Kamins discussed the case of Jabbar Collins, a man with a pending wrongful conviction lawsuit. Collins, who served 16 years for murder before a federal judge ordered his release, is pursuing a civil claim alleging prosecutorial misconduct.
Kamins emailed Hynes saying Collins’ attorney, Joel Rudin of Manhattan, was “out of control” and suggested the candidate sidestep the wrongful conviction/prosecutorial misconduct issue as much as possible.
“Time is very limited,” Kamins said in a Jan. 28, 2013 email quoted by the DOI. “I would not get into the details of the Collins case…. I would say that your office looked into the allegations and found no misconduct. Period.”
Additionally, Kamins and Hynes discussed pending rape and child abuse cases, the report found.
Although it does not appear that the officials discussed the disposition of the cases, the DOI report said Kamins should not have been involved in open case discussions in any context.
“In addition to potentially interfering with the proper performance of his judicial duties, these emails suggest the extent to which Judge Kamins advised Hynes on high profile and sensitive matters pertaining to Hynes’ official duties,” the report said.
The report also detailed Kamins’ plan to use his contacts at the New York Law Journal and New York Times to promote Hynes. The judge writes a criminal law column for the Law Journal and is a member of its editorial board.
Although the DOI investigation apparently did not yield evidence that Kamins did anything illegal or attempted to tilt the scales of justice, it is replete with allegations that the judge intimately involved himself in politics and “used his office to advance Hynes’ political career,” in violation of the Code of Judicial Conduct and the Rules of the Chief Administrative Judge.
The Commission on Judicial Conduct has disciplined at least 16 judges for violating the bar on political activity. Most of them have been censured or admonished, but the commission voted to remove several from office. Additionally, several judges have been disciplined—sometimes to the point of removal—for engaging in ex parte discussions of pending cases.
See Related Article: Penalties Vary for Jurists’ Political Activity
It is unclear whether Kamins’ alleged transgressions rise to the level of removal from office, a lesser sanction, or any sanction at all. But for now, he has been stripped of his administrative title and the $9,300 stipend that came with it, according to David Bookstaver, spokesman for the Office of Court Administration.
Bookstaver said Kamins has been “relieved of his duties”—OCA does not have the power to suspend or remove judges pending a Commission on Judicial Conduct investigation—and is receiving the base salary of a Supreme Court justice, $174,000. He said Deputy Chief Administrative Judge Lawrence Marks has assumed Kamins’ administrative responsibilities and that Kamins does not have a trial caseload.
“The commission has to act, and we hope they will resolve this matter as expeditiously as possible,” Bookstaver said.
Typically, it takes at least several months for the commission to initiate an investigation and issue a recommendation. Robert Tembeckjian, administrator and counsel to the commission, declined comment.
Kamins last year reached the mandatory retirement age of 70 but was certificated by OCA to remain on the bench for another two years. If Kamins is still in office at the end of 2015, OCA could effectively remove him by refusing to extend his post-retirement certification.
Late to the Bench
Zuckerman Spaeder partner Paul Shechtman, who is representing Kamins, said the emails referenced in the DOI report indicate that his client was largely “listening and responding to the gripes of an old friend who was engaged in a hotly contested political campaign.”
“At no time did Judge Kamins have his hands on the scale of justice or influence the course of any case,” Shechtman said.
Kamins, a criminal defense lawyer, a former president of what was then the Association of the Bar of the City of New York, and partner at Flamhaft Levy Kamins Hirsch and Rendeiro in Brooklyn, had been dealing with Hynes and his office for years.
Kamins was a late-comer to the bench; he was in his mid-60s when Mayor Michael Bloomberg appointed him to the Criminal Court in 2008. He rose rapidly in judicial administration, garnering a reputation as a hard-working, widely respected and reasonable manager.
Kamins was quickly designated an acting Supreme Court justice and then served as the Second District’s administrative judge for criminal matters and acting administrative judge for civil matters before winning a Supreme Court position in an unopposed election. Last year, Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman appointed Kamins chief of policy and planning.
Sources close to the matter said OCA first learned of the DOI report Friday afternoon, reacting with “near disbelief” that Kamins, who had a stellar reputation among court leaders, was implicated in alleged misconduct.
A judge who has known Kamins for decades described him as “one of the best judges I know.”
Shechtman added, “Barry Kamins represents what all of us want in a judge. He is thoughtful and dispassionate and the straightest of straight shooters.”
Meanwhile, in the Brooklyn legal community, where Kamins is well-known—and, according to some lawyers, beloved—attorneys reacted with shock that one of their own was in trouble and speculated as to what it will mean to his career, reputation and legacy.
Attorney Joyce David said it was “never a secret” that Hynes and Kamins, two longtime members of the borough’s legal establishment, were close friends, and it was not surprising that they would discuss politics. But David said she had always viewed Kamins as “above reproach in every regard,” a “terrific guy” and a “terrific administrator.”
“I still feel the same way, just disappointed a little bit that this is happening,” she said. “It doesn’t change my opinion.”
In an email, attorney Jay Schwitzman said Kamins “has given advice to many people over his 40-plus years as a prosecutor, attorney, author, professor, lecturer and judge.”
“He is dedicated to his profession,” Schwitzman continued. “He is a learned man that is always accessible and rarely says no. Apparently his 40-plus year friendship with Charles Hynes contributed to his decision to assist in a political campaign. Giving free advice has been his trademark and many have benefited. An allegation that [Kamins] violated judicial ethics is contrary to his trademark of dispensing advice and assistance to his colleagues.”
Kamins declined comment. Hynes could not be reached for comment on Tuesday.