The New York Times

June 12, 2004

Police and Court Officers Call for Justice's Removal From the Bench


Throughout her career, Laura D. Blackburne - both as a city official in the Dinkins administration and as a State Supreme Court justice in Queens - has been a polarizing figure, making headlines and attracting ever-growing factions of supporters and critics.

Justice Blackburne's ongoing rift with the city's Police Department widened on Thursday after she helped a suspect in her courtroom - Derek Sterling, 23, of Queens - elude a detective seeking to arrest him on a separate charge and then accused the detective of using a ruse to make his arrest.

Yesterday, leaders of police and court officers' unions struck back by holding a news conference to call for her removal from the bench and the filing of criminal charges against her.

The police also announced that a team of detectives had arrested Mr. Sterling yesterday at the Queens drug treatment center where he was staying. He was arraigned last night on charges of first-degree robbery and assault.

At the news conference yesterday, Michael J. Palladino, president of the Detectives Endowment Association, accused Justice Blackburne of being biased against police officers. He called for her immediate removal and for a criminal investigation into her action in the Sterling case. He said that the detective in the case, Leonard Devlin, did not deceive Justice Blackburne, but rather had "made absolutely clear his purpose and his intent."

"Judge Blackburne's actions were shocking but not surprising, given her long history of antipolice behavior," Mr. Palladino said. "She's incapable of making a decision that is not biased against the police."

He said that the justice's action had prevented Mr. Sterling from being arrested in a safe setting, since he had already passed through the court's metal detectors.

In 2002, after numerous delays in the case, Justice Blackburne threw out a 13-count indictment against a man charged with shooting a police officer and ordered him released without bail pending a hearing on reinstating the charges.

"She must not be allowed to sit on that bench and let killers and drug addicts out into the street," said Patrick J. Lynch, president of the Patrolmen's Benevolent Association.

James Carr, president of the Superior Court Officers Association, said that the officers in Queens courts "are outraged by this; they're very uncomfortable having to work with Judge Blackburne."

Justice Blackburne did not return messages left yesterday at her home and her chambers.

Meanwhile, her supporters were equally vociferous yesterday in commending her decision, calling it another example of her upholding of the law and the Constitution in the face of police intimidation.

They accused the police of trying to demonize and intimidate the justice just as they had done to Justice Bruce M. Wright, who was accused of setting low bail or no bail for suspects.

The latest controversial episode involving Justice Blackburne, who is 66, occurred when Mr. Sterling appeared before her on Thursday at State Supreme Court in Kew Gardens for an update about his progress in the Aurora Concepts residential drug treatment center on Parsons Boulevard. He had been sent there after a drug arrest in October 2002.

When Justice Blackburne learned that Detective Devlin was waiting in the hallway to arrest Mr. Sterling in connection with a May 23 robbery in South Ozone Park, she became irritated with the detective's arrival at her courtroom and accused him on the record of misrepresenting himself. She ordered Mr. Sterling to exit the courtroom through a side door, and he managed to elude the detective.

Upon learning of this, Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly issued a statement calling for a judicial misconduct investigation of Justice Blackburne. He likened her action to aiding in the escape of a suspected violent criminal and called her decision "outrageous conduct by any measure," adding that "her actions merit investigation for judicial misconduct."

Meanwhile, the lawyer Ron Kuby defended Justice Blackburne and accused the police of "judge baiting."

"She showed tremendous judicial courage by finally drawing a line and telling the police she will not tolerate being lied to," he said. "She's supposed to trust the honesty of a detective who just lied to her face when he turns around and says he has sufficient evidence to make an arrest?"

"Commissioner Kelly ought to spend a little more time disciplining his cops and less time attacking judges who refuse to be lied to," Mr. Kuby said.

Justice Blackburne was chairwoman of the New York City Housing Authority in the administration of Mayor David N. Dinkins, but resigned under pressure in 1992 after criticism of her spending practices focused on the hundreds of thousands of dollars she spent on business trips and a lavish redecoration of her office that included a $3,000 pink leather couch.

She was then elected a Supreme Court justice in Queens and served on both the civil and criminal benches before being assigned this year to the treatment court in Queens, which handles drug cases.

William K. Rashbaum and Colin Moynihan contributed reporting for this article.