Cop-Shoving Judge Gets Buffalo Cases Cut From Docket

Law360 (October 30, 2020, 9:14 PM EDT) -- The New York state judge who brawled with neighbors, shoved a police officer, touted his ties to power and avoided charges will have all remaining Buffalo city cases stripped from his docket, following his recusal from three police lawsuits.

State court officials told Law360 Friday that an additional dozen cases involving the city of Buffalo will be removed from Supreme Court Justice Mark Grisanti's control following his actions during the June 22 incident when he made statements allying himself with the police force as he sat handcuffed in the back of a patrol car.

The judge was never formally arrested, and the district attorney declined to press charges.

"All cases involving the city of Buffalo [about 12] are being reassigned," state court spokesperson Lucian Chalfen said in an email, adding that any cases involving the judge's attorney, Leonard Zaccagnino, will also be reassigned. Zaccagnino told Law360 there was just one such case.

According to a review of court records on Friday, Justice Grisanti presides over 362 open cases with future appearances. Thirteen cases still list the city of Buffalo as the defendant, including one in which the Buffalo Police Department is a defendant.

In that case, Eban Brown claims he was falsely charged with obstructing governmental administration and resisting arrest — charges defense attorneys and police officers have told Law360 the judge could have easily been charged with — in addition to second-degree assault, harassment and seventh-degree drug possession.

Once those cases are reassigned to other judges, Justice Grisanti will no longer preside over any lawsuits involving the city.

Two weeks ago, Justice Grisanti recused himself from three cases involving the Buffalo Police Department shortly after Law360 presented concerns raised by ethics experts to Administrative Judge Paula L. Feroleto, who oversees Grisanti's caseload. The experts said Justice Grisanti's statements to police captured on body camera footage led them to question whether he could be impartial.

Zaccagnino told Law360 Friday that his client's removal from the remaining city cases likely stems from an effort to avoid "the appearance of impropriety," but he said the judge could have remained impartial in those cases.

"I absolutely believe and know that he can be," Zaccagnino said, calling Justice Grisanti "one of the most respected judges on the bench."

"He gets people to sit down and talk about their differences ... bring them together. Not every judge is as good at that as he is," Zaccagnino said.

When asked how he reconciled that description with video that shows the judge chasing and pushing a police officer who was handcuffing his wife before making expletive-riddled demands and threats as he touted his ties to the mayor and police, Zaccagnino said the judge had responded emotionally, as a husband, outside the courtroom.

"I think in the way he reacted in that moment was appropriate," Zaccagnino said, justifying his client's behavior. "He acted on emotion in terms of what he saw."

While Justice Grisanti will lose two dozen cases from his calendar due to his behavior in the aftermath of the June incident, court administrators said the judge is not having his caseload reduced.

"His case inventory is really not decreasing as he is picking up about 30 'trial ready' cases" from Justice Joseph R. Glownia, who is being forced into retirement due to the court system's cost-cutting efforts, Chalfen said.

While the FBI supposedly conducted a brief investigation and the state's Commission on Judicial Conduct is investigating the matter, thus far the recusals and case reassignments are the only official consequences linked to the judge's actions in June after Erie County District Attorney John Flynn downplayed the seriousness of the incident — calling all involved "equally childish" — and declined to bring charges in July.

Buffalo police say they were blindsided by Flynn's decision not to charge the judge. Police files and interviews with officers that show the detective on the case could not explain the lack of charges and that he had no notice that the district attorney would decline to charge anyone.

In an interview with local television Tuesday, Flynn put the responsibility for the lack of charges related to the judge's shove back on police officers.

"The officers, for whatever reason, they decided not to file charges," Flynn told WGRZ. The district attorney has final say on whether or not to bring criminal charges but said he "would never override a victim in that kind of case."

"At most, it's a harassment charge. It's not even a crime," Flynn added.

Police officers previously told Law360 they disagreed with that assessment.

Interfering with a police officer making an arrest is a crime, obstructing governmental administration, a misdemeanor offense for which defense attorneys and police officers say the judge could have easily been arrested and prosecuted.

Several Buffalo officers, speaking on the condition of anonymity for fear of losing their jobs, previously told Law360 it appeared the judge got special treatment. The officers said either they believed charges should be filed or that they would have arrested the judge if he had shoved them. One believed charges had, in fact, been filed the night of the incident.

"To have him not charged with anything, not even a disorderly conduct or an obstruction, is disgusting, and that does not happen. Period," one officer told Law360.

Gina and Joseph Mele, the neighbors who fought with Justice Grisanti and his wife, Maria, have been writing letters to state and local officials to do something to hold the judge accountable. They have repeatedly asked to file assault charges to no avail after Joseph Mele was left with a bloody bite mark, a facial fracture and a shoulder injury he said was caused by the Grisantis.

In a letter sent Friday, Gina Mele noted that police files show the detective on the case believed the Grisantis started the fight and called on Gov. Andrew Cuomo to trigger an investigation of the district attorney's failure to bring charges through a referral to state Attorney General Letitia James' public integrity unit.

--Editing by Janice Carter Brown.

For a reprint of this article, please contact reprints@law360.com.

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