June 14, 2006

Queens judge kicked out

BY ANTHONY M. DESTEFANO Newsday Staff Writer

A controversial Queens judge, already suspended from her job, was formally fired Tuesday by the state Court of Appeals for improperly allowing a suspect in a robbery case to avoid arrest in the courthouse.

By a 5-2 vote, the state's highest court found that State Supreme Court Justice Laura Blackburne abandoned her role as a neutral arbiter in the criminal justice system when she acted to frustrate the effort of a detective trying to arrest the suspect in 2004.

Blackburne became "an adversary of the police," the court said, adding "this is completely incompatible with the proper role of an impartial judge."

The high court ruling affirmed a decision last year by the state Commission on Judicial Conduct which recommended Blackburne's removal. Tuesday's decision immediately stripped Blackburne of her $136,700-a-year job.

The city Patrolmen's Benevolent Association, in a statement, hailed the decision as a "great service" for the city by removing a jurist seen as a "cop hater." But other judges and defense attorneys said the ruling was a sad day for the judiciary.

The incident took place in June 2004 when Blackburne was presiding over a Queens drug treatment court that specializes in non-violent felons with addiction problems. Before the case of defendant Derek Sterling was called, Det. Leonard Devlin appeared at the court to arrest Sterling on a robbery and assault charge, court papers said.

Although Blackburne never talked to Devlin directly, she allowed Sterling to leave after his case was called through a side door. He eventually made it to the parking lot, eluding Devlin. Sterling was arrested the next day but the charges were later dropped, the court noted.

Though it was a single instance of misconduct, the high court said Blackburne acted out of "anger and pique" over a mistaken belief that Devlin had lied to her about why he had come to court. Though she had chances to rectify her mistake on the spot, Blackburne pressed a court officer to allow Sterling to leave despite concerns by prosecutors it might be an obstruction of justice.

Blackburne "placed herself above the law she was sworn to administer," said the decision.

Nassau State Supreme Court Justice F. Dana Winslow said the state Association of Justices of the Supreme Court filed a friend of the court brief supporting Blackburne. Winslow, the association president, said, "I do believe it [the decision] can have a chilling effect on the conduct of judges throughout the state."