Wednesday, December 30, 2020

Judge Censured For Advocacy Concerning Daughter's Education

The New York Judicial Conduct Commission has imposed an agreed public censure of a supreme court justice.

From the commission press release

From January 2018 through March 2018, Judge Panepinto publicly supported the teachers at Buffalo City Honors School (“CHS”) in connection with a lawsuit brought by their union (the Buffalo Teachers Federation) against the Buffalo Board of Education. Her daughter attended the school.

Judge Panepinto admitted to:
 making repeated public comments about the issues and people involved in the litigation, in person, by email and on social media platforms in which she was publicly identified as a judge;
 providing legal information and advice to parents of CHS students;
 signing advocacy letters;

 speaking about the pending and impending lawsuits with Board of Education members;
 joining the Federation’s lawyer in the courthouse and outside the courtroom prior to a case conference; and
 executing an affidavit in support of the Federation’s case, which was attached as an exhibit to court papers.

The Commission found that the judge’s “numerous violations of the Rules [Governing Judicial Conduct] during the relevant three-month period undermined public confidence” and that her conduct “was improper and went beyond appropriate action specifically concerning her personal interest in her daughter’s  education.”

The judge had joined a Facebook group and gave legal advice to group members.

She "publicly criticized" the school principal and posted a Facebook comment to a newspaper editorial, which disclosed her judicial status

Respondent avers that she did not know that Facebook settings would automatically identify her by her judicial title. Respondent concedes that she should have familiarized herself with such Facebook protocols prior to posting the comments at issue.

Public advocacy

On or about February 14, 2018, respondent spoke to a group of more than 100 people at a BBOE meeting at Buffalo City Hall, where she criticized CHS’s plans to transfer teachers. Respondent did not identify herself by her judicial title, but respondent’s appearance and comments were reported in the Buffalo News, which identified her as “a state Supreme Court justice.”

Photographed with counsel in the courthouse hallway

Particularly troubling was respondent’s decision to stand with counsel for the union and two CHS parents in the Buffalo Supreme Court facility where respondent presides. Respondent stood with them in a hallway outside the courtroom of the judge presiding over the union’s case immediately before a case conference was held. By standing with union counsel in the courthouse where she serves, respondent, who spoke repeatedly and publicly in favor of CHS teachers, undermined confidence in the impartiality of the judiciary

There is no suggestion that the justice was motivated by anything other than a sincere interest in her daughter's education but

Respondent’s numerous violations of the Rules during the relevant three-month period undermined public confidence in the integrity and impartiality of the judiciary. The totality of evidence demonstrated that respondent’s extra-judicial conduct was improper and went beyond appropriate action specifically concerning her personal interest in her daughter’s education.

(Mike Frisch)

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