June 15, 2004

Judge Helped a Wanted Man, is Reassigned

She's Off Criminal Cases

Staff Reporter of the Sun

The Queens judge who helped a wanted man slip out of her courtroom before a detective could arrest him has been reassigned to preside over civil cases before the state Supreme Court, court officials said.

Judge Laura Blackburne accepted the transfer yesterday pending the outcome of any possible investigation by the State Commission on Judicial Conduct, said a spokesman for the Office of Court Administration, David Bookstaver.

The administrator of the commission, Robert Tembeckjian, said at least one complaint against Judge Blackburne was received and the commission would discuss the matter Thursday.

Sources said Judge Blackburne could be ejected from the criminal court bench altogether if the commission finds she erred in thwarting the arrest of a robbery suspect in her courtroom. Removal of a justice is rare.

Critics of her behavior, including Mayor Bloomberg and police brass, hailed the transfer. Relations between Judge Blackburne and the law enforcement community have been strained since 2002, when she dismissed attempted murder charges against a man accused of shooting a police officer.

“She should not be sitting on any bench,” said Patrick Lynch, president of the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, which, along with the Detectives’ Endowment Association, filed a complaint against Judge Blackburne. “The issue is judgment, and her judgment is prejudiced against law enforcement officers.”

Civil rights lawyer Ronald Kuby defended Judge Blackburne, saying it was “shameful” she was pressured into “accepting this phony voluntary re-designation.... All of this anger should be directed to the police officer who lied, rather than the judge who refused to be lied to.”

The controversy erupted last Thursday when 24-year-old Derek Sterling appeared before Judge Blackburne on an unrelated matter and a police detective notified the court he planned to arrest Mr. Sterling as a robbery suspect after the hearing.

Judge Blackburne, 66,ordered a court officer to escort the suspect out a side door and to an elevator primarily reserved for judges. She suggested that the detective, who waited in the hall while his suspect escaped, arrived without an arrest warrant.

“I’m not trying to keep you from being arrested,” the judge told Mr. Sterling, according to a court transcript. “I’m trying to keep you from being arrested today in my courtroom based on obvious misrepresentations on the part of the detective.”

Mr. Sterling was arrested early Friday at the drug rehabilitation center where he had been residing and was charged with two counts of robbery and two counts of assault, a spokesman for Queens District Attorney Richard Brown said yesterday. He is being held on $50,000 bail.

Police said it was common for detectives to arrest suspects when they appear in court for other cases and contended no warrant was necessary.

Yesterday, the president elect of the New York State Supreme Court Officers Association, John McKillop, said the court officer tapped by Judge Blackburne to escort the suspect away “was extremely upset with the position he was put in.”

Mr. McKillop said he would issue an order instructing officers who believe they are being asked by a judge to do something illegal to refuse the request and contact the union.

At a morning press conference in the Bronx, Mayor Bloomberg called the reassignment appropriate. Later, his office released a letter from the deputy mayor for legal affairs, Carol Robles-Roman,urging the Commission on Judicial Conduct to launch an investigation.

“When people start interfering in our ability to keep the bad guys off the street, I think it is time that we say something and let the judicial process play out,” Mr. Bloomberg said.

Judge Blackburne, who could not be reached for comment,has been a controversial figure for most of her career on the bench and as the housing commissioner in the Dinkins administration.

Still, she retains an impressive base of support, especially among minority groups and elected officials in Queens. For example, several minority judges elected last year requested that she preside over their installations.

Court officers said Lieutenant Adams, president of 100 Blacks in Law Enforcement Who Care,escorted Judge Blackburne into her chambers yesterday after word spread that she had been reassigned. Lieutenant Adams did not return phone calls for comment.

“I’ve never known her to be anything but competent and intelligent,” said City Council Member Leroy Comrie, who represents parts of southeast Queens and has known Judge Blackburne for over 20 years. “I’m sure she thought about it over the weekend and decided that she probably wants to get past this as quickly as possible and not be the center of a media maelstrom.”

Judge Blackburne, a Democrat, had been the subject of police ire before 2002. At a stolen-property trial in 2000, she closed her courtroom to spectators to settle a dispute of whether a police witness could watch the trial.