The New York Times

June 15, 2004

Queens Judge Accepts Call for Transfer


The Queens judge who is accused of helping a robbery suspect avoid arrest outside her courtroom agreed yesterday to a transfer out of criminal court, pending an investigation of her conduct.

Police, city and union officials had unleashed a barrage of criticism against the judge, Justice Laura D. Blackburne of State Supreme Court in Queens, since her actions on Thursday. Yesterday she agreed with court administrators that a transfer to civil court would be "the best course of action," according to David Bookstaver, a spokesman for the State Office of Court Administration.

A review by the State Commission on Judicial Conduct seems likely. The commission's administrator, Robert H. Tembeckjian, confirmed yesterday that a complaint against Justice Blackburne had been filed jointly by the Patrolmen's Benevolent Association and the Detectives' Endowment Association.

In addition, the deputy mayor for legal affairs, Carol A. Robles-Roman, sent a letter to the commission urging it to "consider the gravity of Judge Blackburne's alleged conduct" and "to act expeditiously," according to a copy provided by her office.

The commission plans to address the case at its regular meeting on Thursday. A simple majority of its 11 members is enough to start an investigation.

Justice Blackburne did not return a call to her chambers for comment. But, in explaining her agreement to transfer, Mr. Bookstaver said, "Judge Blackburne understands that the focus should be on the litigants in the drug court part and not on the judge."

But one of her supporters, the civil rights lawyer Ron L. Kuby, objected to the reassignment.

"This is a complete failure of the judiciary to preserve its own independence in the face of an attack by the police union and the court officers' union," Mr. Kuby said in an interview. "Typically, my clients are first charged, then tried, then punished if found guilty. Apparently there's a new system for judges, where they get punished first as long as the P.B.A. is demanding it."

Justice Blackburne has also received support form Lt. Eric Adams, a founder of 100 Blacks in Law Enforcement Who Care, who said that he met with her yesterday morning.

"My purpose in meeting her was to say we fully support her," he said. "We believe that after the conclusion of any investigation it will be determined that she acted appropriately, as she has always done while on the bench."

The controversy erupted on Thursday when Justice Blackburne told Derek Sterling, a drug defendant who was appearing before her to update his progress in a treatment program, to leave her courtroom through a side door, the police said, even though she knew a detective was waiting in another hallway to arrest him on charges in a recent robbery.

According to a transcript of the hearing, Justice Blackburne said that the detective, Leonard Devlin, had come to the court under "a ruse" of wanting to ask questions when, in fact, he intended to arrest Mr. Sterling.

"I'm not trying to keep you from being arrested," she told Mr. Sterling. "I'm trying to keep you from being arrested today in my courtroom based on obvious misrepresentation on the part of the detective."

A police spokesman denied there was any ruse. Almost immediately, Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelley and officials from the police and court officers' unions called for an investigation into what happened at the hearing. Mr. Sterling, 23, of Queens, was arrested the next day at a drug treatment program and charged with first-degree robbery and assault.

Mr. Bookstaver said that the state's chief administrative judge, Jonathan Lippman, and an administrative judge in Queens, Leslie G. Leach, had concluded that the reassignment was necessary, and Justice Blackburne agreed after a conversation early yesterday with Justice Leach.

The announcement did not silence the judge's critics, who accuse her of a long-standing animosity against the police.

"I believe that she should be removed from the bench completely," said Patrick J. Lynch, the president of the police officers' union. "Many people go to civil court for justice as well as criminal court. What's in question here is her judgment, and if she has a bias against police officers, she'll have that bias regardless of what bench she sits on."

Dennis W. Quirk, president of the New York State Court Officers Association, also called the reassignment inadequate.

"It's a first step but the final step should be her removal from the bench totally," he said. "Putting her in the civil part doesn't answer the question."

Justice Blackburne, 66, was first elected a Civil Court judge and then a Supreme Court justice after resigning as chairwoman of the New York City Housing Authority in 1992. She left under pressure after an onslaught of criticism about her spending practices, which included a lavish redecoration of her office and expensive business trips.

Her rift with the Police Department goes back years. In 2002, after numerous delays, she threw out a 13-count indictment against a man accused of shooting a police officer and ordered him freed without bail pending a hearing on reinstating the charges.

As of late yesterday afternoon, Justice Blackburne was still presiding over a drug case. A clerk said she did not know when the judge would be moving.