A very unusual press release crossed my desk the other day.
The New York State Chapter of the National Organization for Women (NOW-NYS) is accusing New York County Supreme Court Justice Joan Lobis and her law secretary, Marilyn Sugarman, of "punitive and biased treatment of women in their courtroom."
Justice Lobis and Ms. Sugarman are "allegedly showing bias against, and inflicting punitive decisions upon, women who are merely trying to protect their children." And, according to NOW-NYS, the Judge and her law secretary, "continue to pour salt on the wound of women who are seeking justice."
The release continues with a series of statements from an unidentified "court observer," and two disgruntled litigants, one of whom is identified as an "anonymous victim." [The full text of the press release and a link to the NOW-NYS website can be found below.]
We submit that these unsubstantiated reports of "judicial bias" did not justify the dissemination of a vitriolic and caustic press release. In fact, we believe the manner in which NOW-NYS aired its dissatisfaction with the judge's rulings is grossly unfair, patently irresponsible, and downright reckless.
Under current cannons of ethics, judges are not permitted to respond to public attacks of their decisions, thus foreclosing the ability of impartial analysts to arrive at an objective assessment of a dispute's merits (or lack thereof). The inability to speak openly, about pending cases or to address inaccurate characterizations of their decisions, frequently makes judges "easy marks." And, often times, this silence is misconstrued by many non-lawyers to be akin to an admission of guilt or acquiescence to the charges.
A cornerstone of our country's democracy is "judicial independence." A judge's function--to decide cases fairly and impartially--should not be clouded by concerns of retaliation by political leaders, court administrators or members of the "fourth estate." Jurists must not be blinded by adverse publicity nor fear reprisals should their decisions prove unpopular or contrary to a particular litigant's wishes or organization's platform.
Take an Appeal!
In the twenty-plus years I've been practicing law, I have yet to meet a litigant that was pleased with having lost a case. And in those instances when the result was contrary to governing statute or precedent, we have appealed that jurist's determination to a higher court.
File a Complaint with the Commission on Judicial Conduct
Formal mechanisms are also in place to investigate allegations of judicial misconduct. In New York, for example, the State Commission on Judicial Conduct reviews such complaints and may admonish, censure or remove from office any judge found to have engaged in unethical or illegal behavior. As its mandate provides:
The Commission's objective is to enforce the obligation of judges to observe high standards of conduct while safeguarding their right to decide cases independently. The Commission does not act as an appellate court. It does not review judicial decisions or alleged errors of law, nor does it issue advisory opinions, give legal advice or represent litigants. When appropriate, it refers complaints to other agencies. By offering a forum for citizens with conduct-related complaints, and by disciplining those judges who transgress ethical constraints, the Commission seeks to insure compliance with established standards of ethical judicial behavior, thereby promoting public confidence in the integrity and honor of the judiciary.
In view of these available safeguards, we do not subscribe to the practice of litigating a dispute's merits by press release and believe that this blatant attempt to strong-arm a highly respected jurist and law secretary to submit to an organization's particular agenda should only meet with rebuke and reproach.
For a copy of the NOW-NYS press release, dated December 6, 2006, please click on the following link: http://www.nownys.org/pr/pr_120606.html
To be directed to the New York State Commission on Judicial Conduct's website, please click on the following link: http://www.scjc.state.ny.us/