New York Daily News

June 16, 2004

Courts to public: Keep out

As Blackburne case shows, judges can slip behind veil of secrecy

By Michael GoodwinThe biggest outrage in the Laura Blackburne case isn't that the Queens judge helped a wanted man escape arrest. What really stinks is that even bringing Blackburne up on formal judicial charges could take a year - and then most of the case will be carried out in secret.

For that scandalous situation, thank the state Legislature. It has put in place a system of due process that is so convoluted, it serves as an obstacle course designed to thwart any attempt to discipline or boot bad judges.

Unless they are hit with felony charges, judges not only get the justice system's ordinary presumption of innocence, they get a veil of secrecy that guarantees public ignorance of the charges and facts.

Blackburne, meanwhile, keeps her $136,000 salary, robes, gavel and the pretense that she is "Your Honor."

"Your Dishonor" would be more accurate for this Junk Judge.

The wall of protection around judges is so thick that Blackburne's only punishment so far - a shift from hearing criminal cases to Civil Court - could happen so quickly largely because she agreed to it.

She probably agreed to it because it's meaningless - she's still a justice of the state Supreme Court.

Had she contested the move, who knows whether court administrators would have been willing to wade through the legal molasses, especially with the racial undertones of the case.

The state Constitution offers extra professional protections to all judges and elected officials. Blackburne is both, having been elected on the Democratic Party line to a term that runs through 2007.

Short of impeachment, which has not happened in a century, there are only two ways for her to get the boot, even temporarily. One is by the state's highest court if she is charged with a felony or a "crime of moral turpitude." That's not likely in this case.

The other way is for the Commission on Judicial Conduct to file noncriminal charges against her and then navigate the secretive judge-protection racket the Legislature has imposed.

That's a more likely scenario, but don't hold your breath. Since 1979, the commission has sought to can just six Supreme Court justices.

The tortured process is a professional courtesy among sharks - after all, many legislators can identify with judges in trouble. And not a few hope to land a bench sinecure to end their careers.

The political rot runs right through the 11-member commission, where each of the two majority and two minority leaders of the Legislature appoints a member. The governor appoints four and the state's chief judge names three.

It would be nice to think this shadowy political-legal nexus will be under the spotlight tomorrow when the commission takes up the complaints against Blackburne.

But that will not happen - the spotlight won't be allowed in the room. The panel's work will remain secret not only through the investigative stage but through any hearings, testimony, findings or even votes on punishment.

Astonishingly, some punishments can, by law, remain secret.

"New York is in the minority on requiring confidentiality," said Robert Tembeckjian, the commission's administrator. "Thirty-eight states have public hearings."

Tembeckjian said the commission has argued for years that its work ought to be public once formal charges are filed, but the Legislature always has balked.

The one way around the secrecy is through Blackburne herself: Only the judge under investigation can invite in the press and public.

It would be a pleasant surprise if she did just that, and not a bad strategic move for her cause. Win or lose, a public trial would give Blackburne the last laugh on the judicial system she so clearly holds in contempt.