By Michael Morton
The incident has drawn the wrath of police and elected officials.
After conferring with her superiors, Blackburne, who sits in Queens Treatment Court on drug cases, agreed to be reassigned to Civil Court until any investigation of her actions is complete, an Office of Court Administration spokesman said.
If a majority of the New York State Commission on Judicial Conduct decides to investigate the St. Albans judge, she could face a private admonition, public censure or removal from office, a commission spokesman said.
Blackburne, 66, who ran afoul of the police two years ago when she dismissed charges against an accused cop shooter, became entangled in another controversy last Thursday.
She expressed dismay about the manner in which a detective had come to her courtroom to arrest Derek Sterling, there on a separate matter. She told the 24-year-old to go out a private exit, allowing him to escape, police said.
Although Sterling was arrested Friday, police said, the apparent interference drew criticism from Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
“It would appear to me from what I've read that Judge Blackburne seems to have stopped being the neutral court officer that she was elected to be and seems to think that she's a police officer,” Bloomberg said during a news conference after the Puerto Rican Day Parade. “I thought what she did was an outrage and she ought to be ashamed.”
Blackburne did not return phone calls for comment, but Ronald Kuby, a civil rights lawyer, defended her action.
“Justice Blackburne showed rare judicial courage,” he said. “She refused to be lied to.”
Kuby said it was common courtesy for police to tell judges beforehand why they are in court and pointed out that Blackburne was not the first justice to complain about officers misrepresenting their intentions but simply the first to take action.
“That's what you have to do to stop these cops from lying,” Kuby said.
During a news conference Tuesday, Borough President Helen Marshall said, “I know Laura Blackburne is an outstanding jurist. I'm not in a position to judge.”
According to a court transcript, Sterling went to her courtroom last Thursday for a routine progress report on his drug treatment program.
Detective Leonard Devlin of the 106th Precinct tried to arrest Sterling in connection with a violent May 23 robbery near 124th Street and Rockaway Boulevard in South Ozone Park, police said.
Devlin did not have a warrant but could have arrested Sterling on probable cause and brought him to the precinct for a lineup, police said. But Blackburne said the detective misrepresented his intentions and needed a warrant before she would allow Sterling to be taken in, according to the transcript.
Blackburne told Sterling “I have directed that you be escorted out of the building … because I – and I'm putting this on the record – specifically, I resent the fact that a detective came to this court under the ruse of wanting to ask questions when, in fact, he had it in his head that he wanted to arrest you.”
The justice also advised Sterling that the detective needed a warrant but that he still might be picked up by police.
“I'm not trying to keep you from being arrested,” Blackburne continued. “I'm trying to keep you from being arrested today in my courtroom based on obvious misrepresentation on the part of the detective.”
But members of law enforcement do not need to explicitly state why they are in a court building, said Michael Kelly, chairman of the New York Bar Association's Criminal Justice Division.
“He has no reason to have to tell the judge he's there,” Kelly said.
Police said Devlin stood in the hallway, never entering the courtroom, and did not misrepresent his intentions.
“This is outrageous conduct by any measure and beyond the pale for a sitting jurist,” Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly said. “At a minimum her actions merit investigation for judicial misconduct.”
Michael Palladino, president of the Detective's Endowment Association, and Patrick Lynch, president of the Patrolmen's Benevolent Association, called for a criminal probe into the matter and asked the Commission on Judicial Conduct to remove Blackburne.
City Councilman Peter Vallone (D-Astoria), chairman of the Public Safety Committee, also sought an inquiry by the Council, the state Assembly and the state Senate and an investigation by the Queens district attorney's office to determine if Blackburne was guilty of hindering prosecution.
“When a judge helps a vicious criminal escape from lawful police action, it goes beyond a minor personality conflict and creates a serious risk to the safety of the public,” Vallone said.
The Bloomberg administration sent a letter to the judicial commission asking it to immediately investigate.
If the Commission on Judicial Conduct investigates and issues one of the three possible recommendations, Blackburne has 30 days to accept its ruling. If she does not, lawyers for the commission will go before the Court of Appeals and seek to make the recommendation mandatory.
Blackburne, who was elected to a 10-year term on the Supreme Court bench in 1996 and selected to head the Drug Treatment Court late last year, is active in the southeast Queens community.
But she has evoked controversy throughout her professional life.
Before serving as a judge, Blackburne ran the city Housing Authority under former Mayor David Dinkins but resigned in 1992 after she was criticized for using public funds for junkets and a lavish office redecoration featuring a $3,000 pink couch.
After she moved to the bench, she sparked a furor in 2002 when she dismissed charges against William Hodges of Jamaica, accused of wounding a rookie cop, on the grounds that he had been denied the right to a speedy trial. There were questions about whether Blackburne knew Hodges' mother through the Jamaica chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
Hodges is now on trial in Kew Gardens on charges he bit another police officer in July.
Reach reporter Michael Morton by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or by calling 718-229-0300, Ext. 154.