June 14, 2006

Judge Is Removed
For Helping Felon Escape Police

Staff Reporter of the Sun

The state's highest court has removed from office the Queens judge who helped a wanted man elude capture by ordering him to leave court through a side door.

In a 5-2 split decision released yesterday, the Court of Appeals upheld the State Commission on Judicial Conduct's recommendation last November that a state Supreme Court judge, Laura Blackburne, be removed from her $136,700-a-year, elected position.

The removal of a state Supreme Court judge for an on-the-record courtroom order is unprecedented in recent decades, and Ms. Blackburne had requested that the Court of Appeals only censure her. But the decision notes that Ms. Blackburne's lapse in judgment was also unprecedented.

"We know of no instance in which a judge has facilitated the escape of an accused violent felon," the majority opinion reads.

The facts of the case have never been in dispute. In June 2004, then-Judge Blackburne instructed a surprised court officer to escort a convicted drug dealer, Derek Sterling, out of her courtroom through a side entrance to help him avoid a waiting detective. It appears that Ms. Blackburne's motive was her annoyance at the detective, whom, she believed had misrepresented his plans to arrest Sterling, by merely saying he hoped to "question" him, the opinion states.

The robbery and assault charges the detective was pursuing against Sterling were later dropped. Sterling had been before the judge for an appearance to monitor his progress in a drug treatment program.

The Commission on Judicial Conduct has recommended the removal of only six state Supreme Court judges in the last 28 years, said its administrator, Robert Tembeckjian, who argued the case against Ms. Blackburne. Those judges who are removed usually have been found to be corrupt.

In its ruling in this case, the majority wrote that Judge Blackburne exhibited not only bad judgment, but created a public danger in interfering with the lawful questioning of a suspect. The decision notes that her order placed a court officer in the uncomfortable position of potentially breaking the law, and it put the public at risk by aiding a potentially violent man. Although the decision notes that Sterling did return "peacefully" to his drug treatment program, the opinion says that "things might easily have turned out otherwise."

The opinion reads: "By interposing herself between the defendant and the detective, petitioner abandoned her role as neutral arbiter, and instead became an adversary of the police. This is completely incompatible with the proper role of an impartial judge."

Before becoming a state Supreme Court in Queens, Ms. Blackburne, 68, served as a city judge. Under Mayor Dinkins she headed the city housing authority until she resigned after spending thousands of dollars to redecorate her office and fly abroad.

She has been widely criticized in the law enforcement community not only for the 2004 case, but also for a 2002 decision, later overturned on appeal, to release a man accused of shooting a police officer. She said the defendant had been held in jail too long without trial.

Her decision in the Sterling case provoked angry responses from Mayor Bloomberg's office and the law enforcement community. The Association of Justices of the Supreme Court of the State of New York and the New York State NAACP, where she has served as pro bono counsel, filed briefs siding with her.

Rep. Charles Rangel, who testified in support of Ms. Blackburne before the judicial conduct commission, called yesterday's decision "unfortunate."

"I believe in a second chance for her," Mr. Rangel told The New York Sun in a telephone interview. "She has a reputation for honesty and veracity in the community which she served."

Ms. Blackburne, who has been suspended from the bench since last year, did not return calls to her home seeking comment. Her attorney, Richard Godosky, declined to comment on the decision.

Mr. Tembeckjian, of the judicial conduct commission, said, in a statement: "It is an unpleasant and difficult duty to remove a judge from office. I appreciate that the court of appeals agreed with the commission that in this case it was necessary."

In his dissenting opinion, Judge George Smith states that this is the first time in which the Court of Appeals has decided to remove a judge for one "act of bad judgment."

In his opinion, which Judge Robert Smith also signed, Judge George Smith writes: "No good reason exists to remove from the bench an outstanding jurist who has made one error in judgment. While it is true that judges should set high standards, it is also true that judges are human and may err. An error in judgment by this judge, approximately two years from retirement, should not lead to removal."