With retirement only two years away, the Honorable Laura Blackburne was recently "defrocked" by the New York State Court of Appeals and removed from the bench as a Justice of the Supreme Court for a widely reported mishap that occurred in her courtroom on the morning of June 10, 2004.
On that date, Detective Leonard Devlin reported to Justice Blackburne's courtroom to arrest Derek Sterling, who was accused of having committed a serious robbery and assault. While the court was in session, Detective Devlin approached Sergeant Richard Peterson, a court officer, and advised Peterson that he wished to question Derek Sterling in connection with a robbery. As the Detective waited in the hallway (to avoid disrupting the ongoing proceedings), the Sergeant informed the Judge of the exchange.
When she was later informed that Sterling was to be arrested, Justice Blackburne instructed the Sergeant to escort Sterling out the back entrance (by way of a "secured hallway used by judges, jurors and court staff"). The Sergeant, after being advised by an Assistant District Attorney that compliance with the Judge's request "might constitute an obstruction of justice," expressed his "discomfort" and asked the Judge to speak to the prosecutor.
Notwithstanding recommendations to allow the arrest, Judge Blackburne--"piqued" by what she perceived as a misrepresentation made by the Detective--insisted that her court officer escort Sterling out of the courthouse using a side entrance. Although Sterling escaped apprehension, he was arrested the following day at another location. And, ironically, the charges against him were eventually dismissed.
Justice Blackburne was not as fortunate. Responding to complaints (including one filed by the Patrolmen's Benevolent Association), the Commission on Judicial Conduct investigated the incident and found the court guilty of "judicial misconduct." Eight members voted for "removal," and two for "censure." On appeal, the New York State Court of Appeals looked unfavorably upon the Judge's actions and refused to excuse the jurist's conceded "error in judgment."
Citing no other reported instance of a judge facilitating "the escape of an accused violent felon," the Court of Appeals chastised Judge Blackburne for "impeding the legitimate operation of law enforcement." As the court noted in its decision:
[B]y helping a wanted robbery suspect to avoid arrest, [Justice Blackburne] placed herself above the law she was sworn to administer, thereby bringing the judiciary into disrepute and undermining public confidence in the integrity and impartiality of her court. Although "removal is not normally to be imposed for poor judgment, even extremely poor judgment"...[Justice Blackburne's] dangerous actions exceeded all measure of acceptable judicial conduct. 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.A lone dissenter, the Honorable George Bundy Smith, disagreed with his colleagues and asserted that a "censure" would have been appropriate under the circumstances. He noted, "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."
While we certainly question the Judge's "impulsiveness" and the inappropriate exercise of her discretion, we are not convinced that this isolated instance warranted the severe sanction of "removal" from office. As far as we can tell, no criminal charges were brought against the Justice, nor was she arrested or indicted for her "indiscretion." Since she was apparently not prosecuted criminally for her acts nor found "guilty" of any criminal wrongdoing, we agree with the dissent that Justice Blackburne deserved a "second chance."
For a copy of the Court of Appeals's decision in Matter of Blackburne, please click on the following link:
For a copy of the underlying decision issued by the New York State Commission on Judicial Conduct, please click on the following link:
For a copy of the Commission's press release (dated November 22, 2005), please click on the following link:
Note: On August 3, 2006, Blackburne's daugher, the Honorable Anna Blackburne-Rigsby was appointed an associate judge of the District of Columbia Court of Appeals. (Blackburne-Rigsby previously served as an associate judge to the Superior Court of the District of Columbia.) Prior to her mother's removal from the bench, the two women were reportedly the only mother and daughter judges on U.S. courts of general jurisdiction.