A Livingston County town and village justice under investigation for judicial misconduct—including charges he engaged in ex parte contact and threatened to tape shut a defendant’s mouth—has resigned from both positions and agreed to never seek judicial office again, the state Commission on Judicial Conduct announced on Tuesday.
James LaPiana has served as a Mount Morris Town Court justice since 2006 and a Mount Morris Village Court justice since 2010, and the commission began its investigation of him this spring, it said in a statement.
On Aug. 2, LaPiana, who is also a practicing lawyer in Mount Morris, entered into a stipulation with the commission agreeing both to the resignations and to never again seek a judgeship in New York. On the same day, he resigned his posts, effective Aug. 31.
According to the stipulation, LaPiana had been under investigation for several complaints alleging that, since May 2015, he had (1) “failed to follow the law when he engaged in extensive ex parte communication with a defendant at [an] arraignment concerning the facts of the case and subsequently presided over a nonjury trial in the matter,” (2) “failed to follow the law when he directed a defendant to enter a local business to pay restitution in violation of an order of protection” and (3) “repeatedly exhibited discourtesy and other inappropriate demeanor, including directing an officer to procure duct tape and thereafter repeatedly threatening to tape shut a defendant’s mouth.”
Neither the stipulation nor Robert Tembeckjian, the commission’s administrator and counsel, revealed who the complainants were, or provided more detail about the alleged wrongdoing and laws violated.
Tembeckjian said in a interview Tuesday that he was required to refrain from revealing more than had been set forth in the stipulation, which he had signed on the commission’s behalf.
Still, he noted, “Ex parte communications and an intemperate demeanor [by a judge] can result in either public reprimand [by the commission] or, in the more egregious circumstances, a removal from the bench.”
He added that the stipulation, which was accepted on Aug. 7 by the full 11-member commission, meant that the remaining investigation and potential ensuing charges will not play out, thereby saving both LaPiana and the state-funded commission money and resources. The entire process can take more than a year.
Once the commission confronted LaPiana in June with the accusations, he began “engaging with us about resolving it with his departure from the bench,” Tembeckjian said.
Still, such a resignation needed to be accepted by the commission as a proper resolution. And negotiations between the two sides continued through July until an agreement was reached, Tembeckjian said.
LaPiana, who represented himself in the investigation, did not return a call Tuesday made to the Mount Morris Town Court. He also could not be reached at a number listed on Manta.com for a law office in Mount Morris—a town in western New York with a population less than 4,500 as of 2010.
LaPiana’s judge positions were part time, according to Tembeckjian, and the commission’s investigation does not affect his ability to practice law. His cases on the bench likely involved small claims, low-level crimes, eviction proceedings, or similar matters, Tembeckjian said.
The commission is a state agency that has been investigating complaints of judicial misconduct since 1978, according to Tembeckjian. It gets some 1,900 complaints about judges each year and typically determines to investigate between 175 and 200 of them. It has accepted 69 stipulations since the stipulation procedure was implemented in 2003. Since 1978, the commission has issued 267 determinations of admonition against state judges, 320 determinations of censure and 170 determinations of removal.