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Complaints against judges are on the rise

It may be the Internet or public disclosure of past disciplinary cases, but the number of complaints against New York’s judges hit a new record in 2010.

The Commission on Judicial Conduct, chaired by Perinton Town Justice Thomas A. Klonick, received a record 2,025 complaints in 2010, according to its just-released report. That is 170 more than in 2009 and 102 more than the previous high of 1,923 in 2008.

Klonick said sometimes the number of complaints spike when higher-profile cases of judges being removed or disciplined makes statewide news. He said the Internet has also created more awareness of the commission and makes it easier for people to download a form and post a complaint.

“Overall, although the number of complaints has increased, the number of judges disciplined has been about the same,” Klonick said.

The commission is responsible for investigating complaints of misconduct against judges of the state Unified Court System and, where appropriate, disciplining them for ethics violations.

In 2010, it conducted 439 inquiries, authorized 225 full-fledged investigations and rendered 15 public decisions, including a Saratoga County Family Court judge, Gilbert L. Abramson, being removed from office in October.

There were also seven public censures, five public admonitions and two public stipulations in which judges agreed to leave and never again hold judicial office.

Fourteen judges resigned during commission proceedings, 36 confidential cautionary letters were issued and 226 matters were still pending at the end of the year.

Most complaints were unfounded. Some were referred to other agencies such as 29 matters that were sent to the Office of Court Administration, typically dealing with relatively isolated instances of delay, poor record-keeping or other administrative issues. Five matters were referred to an attorney grievance committee; two to a district attorney’s office; four, the state comptroller; and one to the Justice Department.

“By far, the greatest number of complaints have been litigants who feel that they didn’t get a fair shake by the system and oftentimes they’ll go after a judge,” Klonick said, noting many times there is no basis for the complaint and litigants are simply unhappy the case didn’t go their way.

“The commission is there to protect the public, in large part, but it’s also there to protect our judiciary who often cannot respond publicly to frivolous complaints,” he said. “They can’t respond about pending cases or cases that may be taken up on appeal.”

Commission Administrator Robert H. Tembeckjian said that while no single-year statistics tell the whole story, the numbers for 2010 are about average for the last five years.

Five-year (2006-2010) averages show 1,803 complaints received with 410 initial inquiries, 240 investigations, 20 public decisions and 238 cases pending at year end.

Town and village justices make up about 65 percent of the state’s 3,500 judges, which coincides with the statistics showing they account for 66 percent of the commission’s public disciplines.

The 170-page report, available on the commission’s website at www.cjc.ny.gov, also makes some recommendations and renews the commission’s call for legislation to make its formal disciplinary proceedings open to the public; as they are in 35 other states and were in New York until the law changed in 1978.

“For over 10 years, the commission has taken the position that once charges have been filed against a charge, that that hearing should be public,” Klonick said. “There are some legislators who have also taken that position that they feel that once charges are filed against a judge, it should be done in the bright light of the a courtroom.”

The report notes that judges are public officials and the commission is a public agency.

“Not only does the public have a right to know when formal charges have been preferred by a prosecuting authority against a public official, but the prosecuting entity is more likely to exercise its power wisely if it is subject to public scrutiny,” the report says.

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