June 15, 2004

Queens judge reassigned

By Herbert Lowe and Glenn Thrush Staff Writers

Justice Laura Blackburne was reassigned Monday from criminal to civil court pending a probe into why she allowed a robbery suspect to leave her Queens courtroom while a detective waited outside to arrest him, officials said.

The move made by Blackburne's superiors, which officials said she accepted voluntarily, did not mollify her critics, including those in City Hall.

"I don't want to prejudice any investigation, but when people start interfering in our ability to keep the bad guys off the streets, I think it's time that we say something," Mayor Michael Bloomberg said at a news conference.

Later, Bloomberg's counsel, Deputy Mayor Carol Robles-Roman, sent a letter to the state Commission on Judicial Conduct, which is expected to discuss the matter Thursday, officials said.

Police Commissioner Ray Kelly and police union officials also are demanding an investigation into why Blackburne, 66, helped Derek Sterling avoid arrest by telling a court officer to lead him out a side door Thursday in State Supreme Court in Kew Gardens.

Sterling, a convicted drug dealer, was in court to update Blackburne on his drug treatment. When Det. Leonard Devlin came to arrest him in the robbery case, the judge allowed Sterling to leave in her private elevator.

Blackburne said at the time that she resented the manner in which Devlin approached the court to execute arrest. Sterling was later apprehended.

"This administration urges the commission to consider the gravity of judge Blackburne's alleged conduct and to act expeditiously," Robles-Roman's letter said. "Although we understand that judge Blackburne has been reassigned to the Civil Term, we cannot have a member of the bench obstructing justice and endangering the lives of New Yorkers."

Blackburne accepted her reassignment from hearing low-level drug cases after talking to Leslie Leach, the administrative judge in Queens, and Jonathan Lippman, the state's chief administrative judge, said David Bookstaver, a spokesman for the state Office of Court Administration.

"She will stay in her courtroom but not hear criminal cases," he said. "She understands that it's best for the court and the litigants right now for her to sit in a civil part."

Blackburne did not speak with reporters yesterday.

Her courtroom did not reopen until after lunch yesterday, when she presided over the start of a civil case involving a dispute between two construction companies. She appeared at ease and smiled often while speaking to attorneys and giving standard instructions to a jury.

Blackburne did not address her reassignment directly, but she might have been sending a message to her critics when she gave initial instructions to the jury hearing the civil case.

"You have to hear all the evidence before you reach a conclusion," she said. "You have to keep an open mind."

Court officers, still steaming because Blackburne had one of them escort Sterling from the courtroom, were offended again yesterday because the judge appeared to have two off-duty police officers escort her to work.

"We're court officers, and that's what we're paid for," said James Carr, president of the New York State Supreme Court Officers Association. "It's an insult to every one of us who wear the uniform."

Police Lt. Eric Adams, co-founder of 100 Blacks in Law Enforcement Who Care, said he and another officer dropped by the judge's chambers, not to protect her, but just to show their support.

"It's amazing how they just want to find ways to make this into a negative," said Adams, who described Blackburne as a longtime friend and supporter of the organization.

Asked how Blackburne was holding up to all the criticism, Adams said, "I have always known her to be a strong woman, and I didn't see anything to the contrary today."

Staff writer Leonard Levitt contributed to this story.