November 23, 2005

State justice nears removal


State Supreme Court Justice Laura Blackburne is a step away from being removed from the bench after the state Commission on Judicial Conduct declared yesterday it was "simply intolerable" that she enabled a robbery suspect who was appearing in her courtroom to avoid arrest.

Blackburne, 67, of Jamaica, a Supreme Court justice since 2000, has 30 days to appeal the commission's removal sanction to the state Court of Appeals. According to the commission's Web site, the court has overruled a judge's removal nine out of 68 times since the commission started imposing such sanctions in 1978.

Voting 8-2 to remove her, the commission found that Blackburne, acting out of anger, "placed herself above the law she is sworn to uphold and abused the power of her office," according to its 12-page decision.

Blackburne, apparently believing that a detective had lied about his intentions to arrest Derek Sterling outside her courtroom in the Queens County Courthouse in Kew Gardens, had a court officer lead Sterling out through the judge's private entrance on June 10, 2004.

Sterling was arrested later at a drug treatment center. The robbery and assault charges against him were dismissed, but the commission said the judge still merited the harshest punishment.

"Her behavior not only violated her duty as a judge to act in a manner that reflects respect for the law she is duty bound to uphold, but set a reprehensible example for court officers and other court personnel, who were aware of what she was doing," the commission said.

Neither Blackburne nor her attorney, Richard Godosky, could be reached for comment.

In dissenting opinions, two commissioners, Stephen Coffey and Richard Emery, called the sanction unduly harsh and unprecedented for what they said was a single case of poor judgment.

"Within hours of her order, she recognized her mistake, and long before she was charged by the commission with misconduct, freely acknowledged her culpability," Coffey said.

Leaders of the unions representing police detectives and court officers disagreed.

"By their vote, they've confirmed that this woman has no place on the bench," said John McKillop, president of the New York State Supreme Court Officers Association.

After the incident, Blackburne was reassigned from hearing criminal cases to civil cases.

Yesterday, the state's chief administrative judge, Jonathan Lippman, assigned Blackburne to her chambers in Long Island City. She "won't be making any decisions or handling any cases," said David Bookstaver, spokesman for the state Office of Court Administration.

The appeals court will meet next week to consider whether Blackburne should be suspended, and if so, with or without pay, Bookstaver said.