The Chief
June 23, 2006

Uphold Bouncing Of Justice Blackburne

Aided Suspect's Escape

By REUVEN BLAU

The state's highest court June 13 upheld the removal of Queens Supreme Court Justice Laura D. Blackburne from the bench for helping a criminal suspect evade arrest outside her courtroom.

In a 5-2 decision, the Court of Appeals ruled that Ms. Blackburne's action jeopardized public safety and that her conduct was "unprecedented." The 11-page majority decision added, "We know of no instance in which a judge has facilitated the escape of an accused violent felon."

Defense: First Offense

Ms. Blackburne's attorney unsuccessfully argued that she should be censured and not removed for a single act of bad judgment.

Police and court union officials hailed the ruling, arguing that Justice Blackburne's move in June 2004 was illegal and put law-enforcement officials and the public at risk.

"The New York State Court of Appeals has done the people of New York City a great service by permanently removing Laura Blackburne, a notorious cop-hater," asserted Patrick J. Lynch, the president of the Patrolmen's Benevolent Association. "As a judge, Laura Blackburne was a blemish on the outstanding record of service provided to this city by all those who serve on the bench with honor and dignity."

Michael J. Palladino    
PATRICK J. LYNCH: 'A blemish on the judiciary.'  

The decision upheld the State Commission on Judicial Conduct's ruling in November that Justice Blackburne had "set a reprehensible example for Court Officers and other court personnel." Eight members voted for removal, two said she should be censured, and one was not present.

The majority recommendation found that her action was "such gross deviation from the proper role of a judge that it justifies the sanction of removal."

Helped Suspect Flee

On June 10, 2004, Ms. Blackburne ordered Court Sgt. Richard Peterson to assist Derek Sterling in exiting the courthouse through her chambers as Det. Leonard Devlin waited outside her courtroom to arrest him following a court appearance. Mr. Sterling, who was apprehended the following day at his drug treatment program, was being sought in connection with a violent mugging the month before in which the victim suffered a fractured eye socket. The charges were ultimately dismissed.

'Above the Law'

According to court transcripts, Ms. Blackburne said that the Detective waiting outside her courtroom deceived her, and she told Mr. Sterling: "I am not trying to keep you from being arrested. I'm trying to keep you from being arrested today in my courtroom based on obvious misrepresentation on the part of the Detective."

The Court of Appeals ruled that helping a robbery suspect avoid arrest was a dangerous move. "Petitioner placed herself above the law she was sworn to administer, thereby bringing the judiciary into disrepute and undermining public confidence in the integrity and impartiality of her court," the court said.

As a result of the incident, the Court Officers' Association and the Supreme Court Officers' Association issued an order instructing their members to hold defendants who are wanted by the police until the proper law-enforcement officials arrive.

"By interposing herself between the defendant and the detective, petitioner abandoned her role as neutral arbiter, and instead became an adversary of police," the appeals court decision concluded. "This is completely incompatible with the proper role of an impartial judge."

Police Bias Charge

The police unions have argued that Justice Blackburne has long been biased against law-enforcement officers.

She infuriated the law-enforcement unions in 2002 when she dismissed an assault charge against William Hodges, who was facing trial for shooting Police Officer David Gonzalez during a 1999 drug bust. She ruled that the Queens District Attorney's Office had denied him a speedy trial, but the DA countered that some of the delays were caused by Mr. Hodges's attorneys. A state appellate court overturned that decision on Nov. 17, 2004, and Mr. Hodges was subsequently convicted and sentenced to 25 years in prison.

Won't Miss Her

"Justice was served," COA President Dennis W. Quirk said regarding the appeals court decision. "Now maybe she can go home and relax on her pink couch."

In 1992, Ms. Blackburne resigned as chairwoman of the Housing Authority after it was revealed that she spent money on business trips overseas and more than $340,000 to redecorate her office, with a $3,000 pink leather couch and $5,500 for matching pink Venetian blinds among the furnishings.