Cop-Shoving Judge Faces 2nd Ethics Probe Over 2018 Case

Law360 (November 24, 2020, 6:39 PM EST) -- New York state's judicial ethics watchdog will review a Buffalo judge's decision to preside over and rule in favor of an attorney who owed him thousands of dollars, expanding an existing inquiry sparked by his role in a street brawl this summer.

The New York Office of Court Administration said Monday it had referred state Supreme Court Justice Mark Grisanti's handling of the case in 2018 to the state's Commission on Judicial Conduct after Law360 reported that Justice Grisanti failed to disclose the financial relationship. The independent agency has previously censured or removed judges for similar conduct, though those cases involved repeated ethics violations.

Court records show that Justice Grisanti granted a judgment of about $18,500 in favor of a private girls school represented by attorneys Matthew Lazroe and Peter J. Pecoraro. At the time, the attorneys still owed the judge $8,000 on their $35,000 purchase of his former law practice, according to Justice Grisanti's judicial ethics filings, court records and an interview with Lazroe.

Such an arrangement appears to be a conflict of interest, according to outside experts contacted by Law360 and past guidance published by the New York Advisory Committee on Judicial Ethics.

State courts spokesman Lucian Chalfen said Monday's referral was "a proactive step" to address allegations of unethical conduct that senior court officials believed "directly go to his judicial duties."

After such an allegation, court administrators have limited options, Chalfen said. The commission, however, is empowered to take a range of actions. After investigation, it can issue a formal written complaint, then choose to either quietly resolve the matter or opt for public discipline, including stripping a judge of his office.

Justice Grisanti's attorney, Terrence M. Connors of Connors LLP, has denied any wrongdoing by his client.

"Justice Grisanti stands ready to discuss his handling of any of his cases with the Office of Court Administration or the Commission on Judicial Conduct, if required," Terrence M. Connors of Connors LLP told Law360 on Tuesday. "We are confident that after a review of all salient facts, his handling of his cases will withstand scrutiny."

Justice Grisanti has faced scrutiny since June, when neighbors accused him and his wife of assault in the aftermath of a street brawl where the shirtless judge pushed and threatened an officer while boasting about his relationship with the mayor and police. The judge, a former state senator appointed to the bench in 2015, was never arrested or charged.

The commission is investigating that incident and has contacted the judge's neighbors and the Erie County district attorney. The state court administrators' referral of the 2018 case will form a new line of inquiry into potential misconduct in the courtroom.

Richard D. Emery of Emery Celli Brinckerhoff Abady Ward & Maazel LLP, who served on the state's commission on judicial conduct between 2004 to 2017, said that based on the allegations in the two episodes, he fully expects there will be a thorough investigation but that it is hard to predict what the outcome will be.

While "appearances can be deceiving," Emery said, Justice Grisanti's attorney would have to marshal "a substantial showing on the part of the judge to convince most commissioners that there was no appearance of bias" in ruling in favor of an attorney who was cutting him a monthly check.

"On the face of it, sitting on a case that involves people who are paying you in a different business context appears to be problematic," Emery said.

But judges who are "apologetic and take responsibility" are not generally removed, Emery noted. To date, Justice Grisanti has denied wrongdoing through his attorneys' public statements.

A spokesperson for the commission said she "cannot confirm, deny or comment on the existence of a complaint," but she provided a selection of five cases after Law360 requested instances where the watchdog took public disciplinary action against a judge who accepted payments from an attorney who appeared in front of them. In four of the five cases the judge was removed from office, but all five matters involved repeated violations of similar types.

One of the judge's early defenses, however — that his 2018 ruling was an "uncontested debt-collection action" in which the lawyers did not make any appearances and "was not a matter where the judge's impartiality might reasonably be questioned" — appears to be undermined in one case cited by the commission.

A determination in a 2012 matter shows the commission dispensed with similar arguments by former Albany surrogate's court judge Cathryn M. Doyle that "there was no favoritism and could be no appearance of impropriety" in "matters that were uncontested, one-party, non-discretionary proceedings," when she presided over attorneys with whom she had close personal and professional ties.

The commission found Doyle "violated well-established ethical standards requiring disqualification in any proceeding in which a judge's 'impartiality might reasonably be questioned.'" Given Doyle's repeated violations, she was removed from office.

--Editing by Brian Baresch.

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