Brooklyn Supreme Court Justice Richard D. Huttner has agreed to leave the bench at the end of the year after being censured for a second time in less than four years, the State Commission on Judicial Conduct announced yesterday.
The commission indicated that it would have preferred to remove the judge from the bench, but said it was “constrained” by the fact that it could not have completed a disciplinary proceeding without his cooperation before the end of the judge’s current term in December. In agreeing not to seek recertification, the commission said, Justice Huttner, 70, had “acknowledged his misconduct.”
“The judge’s departure from office was an essential element of this stipulated censure,” Robert H. Tembeckjian, the commission’s administrator and counsel, said in an interview.
The commission faulted Justice Huttner, who has been sitting in Queens since 2002, for presiding over a case in which a long-time friend, prominent Brooklyn attorney Ravi Batra, represented a party.
Justice Huttner did not inform the opposition of his relationship with Mr. Batra, with whom he has frequently dined and socialized since the mid-1990s. They have visited each other’s homes and Justice Huttner also attended Mr. Batra’s wedding anniversary party, according to the commission.
Between 1996 and 1999, Justice Huttner appointed Mr. Batra as a fiduciary in 11 cases. In one 1998 case, he appointed Mr. Batra receiver and counsel to Cypress Hills Cemetery. He continued to socialize with Mr. Batra while the case was before him.
The conduct commission singled out another case for its strongest criticism: Baisden v. Pacific House Residence for Adults Housing Development Fund Corporation .
Mr. Batra represented two of three defendants in the case, which involved an adult home whose president was Clarence Norman Sr., the father of the Brooklyn Democratic leader Clarence Norman, who was once a member of Mr. Batra’s law firm. Justice Huttner did not disclose his relationship with Mr. Batra to attorneys, nor did he reveal that he had awarded Mr. Batra fiduciary appointments. His failure to do so violated the standards of judicial conduct, the commission found in a unanimous ruling.
“At the very least, [Justice Huttner] should have disclosed the relationship so that the parties and their attorneys could have had an opportunity to consider whether to seek his disqualification,” the commission wrote.
The commission said a mitigating factor was that Justice Huttner ultimately played a “relatively small” role in the conclusion of the Baisden suit. The parties presented him with an agreed-upon stipulation and he signed it “so ordered.”
In 2001, Justice Huttner was censured for using the prestige of his office to advance private interests when he actively participated in litigation involving the board of his cooperative. Though the cases involving Mr. Batra predated the previous sanction, the conduct commission said that the timing should not mitigate the current penalty.
“The record establishes that respondent lacks sensitivity to the special ethical obligations of judges and indicates the need for a severe sanction,” the commission wrote.
Mr. Batra was recently at the center of another judicial sanction. In April, Manhattan Acting Supreme Court Justice Diane A. Lebedeff was censured for presiding over a personal injury suit in which Mr. Batra was a plaintiff.
The two have a personal relationship, and Justice Lebedeff at times excused opposing counsel so she could engage in “gossip” unrelated to the case, according to the commission’s ruling. She also appointed Mr. Batra to a guardianship that paid him $84,000 while his personal injury suit was pending. The suit was eventually settled for $225,000. Justice Lebedeff was reassigned to Civil Court shortly after her sanction, the second censure of her career.
In a statement after the release of the Huttner decision, Mr. Batra said the ruling had created a “new and higher standard” for judges that should be applauded by the bench and the bar. In an interview, he added that since the Lebedeff ruling, he has been telling clients and opposing counsel if he has any relationship at all with a member of the bench.
“The lawyers don’t have a problem, because they all have the same thing,” Mr. Batra said. “No member of the bar or bench who values their lifelong reputation will sully their reputation for a case or a client, and that serves to enhance public confidence.”
Mr. Batra said Justice Huttner is ailing from a heart condition that recently required surgery. The judge could not be reached for comment. His attorney, Jerome Karp, was unavailable.
� Tom Perrotta can be reached at email@example.com.