New York Daily News

June 15, 2004

The judge paints herself into a very tight corner

Queens Supreme Court Justice Laura Blackburne never will be mistaken for a media darling in this town.

Ever since 1992, she has been enshrined in the tabloid scandal hall of fame as the woman with the $3,000 pink leather couch.

The couch was the only memorable item in a $340,000 office remodeling job that Blackburne foolishly ordered while she ran the city's public housing authority under then-Mayor David Dinkins.

The public uproar forced her resignation. While this was hardly the worst example of bureaucratic waste or corruption in city history, you would have thought, by the media coverage, that it ranked bigger than Wedtech or the Parking Violations Bureau scandals of the Koch era - or the Russell Harding scandal of the Giuliani era.

After her resignation, Blackburne refused to fade into the night. She had, after all, spent more than 30 years in public life. Strong-willed and charismatic, and a longtime leader of the NAACP, she enjoyed widespread support from a large network of middle-class blacks around the country.

Her husband, Elmer Blackburne, was for decades a powerful figure in the Queens Democratic Party and is close to Queens party leader Tom Manton.

With Manton's support, Laura Blackburne eventually was elected to Civil Court in Queens, then in 2000 to a term on the Supreme Court. Her daughter, Anna Blackburne Rigsby, is a judge in the Superior Court of the District of Columbia, which makes them the only mother-daughter judge team in the nation.

Once on the Queens bench, Blackburne quickly became the target of another powerful group in this city, the police unions.

Pat Lynch and the Patrolmen's Benevolent Association claim she is anti-cop. They have been calling for her removal since December 2002, when she dropped all charges against a man accused of shooting a rookie cop during a drug bust.

The defendant, William Hodges, had been in jail for three years without coming to trial. Blackburne ruled that the district attorney's office had violated the speedy trial law, which requires a case be prosecuted within 180 days. Queens District Attorney Richard Brown appealed her decision and a ruling has yet to be handed down.

But even some veteran prosecutors in Queens disagree with the rap against Blackburne.

"You can't characterize her as a defense-oriented judge," said a source in Brown's office. "She calls them as she sees them."

"She's viewed as being fair and independent," said a veteran Queens criminal defense lawyer. "People who go to her courtroom always feel they got a fair trial."

Neither Blackburne nor her husband would agree to be interviewed yesterday, but a source close to the family said: "The slant that she's anti-police is nonsense."

The old controversies do not come close to the present one, however.

Last week, Blackburne directed that a drug defendant appearing before her be escorted out through a side door to evade a detective waiting outside her courtroom to arrest him. She was angry that the detective allegedly misrepresented why he was there.

Of course, it is fairly common for cops to show up in a courtroom to nab suspects on one charge who are making an appearance on an unrelated issue.

No matter how angry she was, Blackburne clearly thumbed her nose at the law by letting the suspect walk out.

She has been transferred to Civil Court and now faces an almost certain judicial inquiry over her actions. This time, Judge Blackburne has given her enemies all the ammunition they need.