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* * "Legal Error and Misconduct are Not Necessarily Mutually Exclusive" * *

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  • victoryusa@jail4judges.org
    J.A.I.L. News Journal ______________________________________________________ Los Angeles, California July 5,
    Message 1 of 1 , Jul 5, 2005
      J.A.I.L. News Journal
      Los Angeles, California                                                 July 5, 2005

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      "Legal error and misconduct are
      'not necessarily mutually exclusive.'"
      JAIL is needed for the countless judges who routinely get by with it.
      JAIL is needed even if judges did meet their responsibilities.
      JAIL is needed as the People's safeguard to prevent tyranny.

      Judge Loses Seat After Showing
      "Shocking Disregard" for Law
      New York state's high court finds actions
      constituted removable misconduct

      John Caher
      New York Law Journal
      In a harshly worded opinion, New York's Court of Appeals Wednesday
      ended Brooklyn Surrogate Michael H. Feinberg's judicial career. It held
      that his awarding of millions of dollars in attorney fees to a friend without demanding the affidavits required by law constituted removable
      The court said in a unanimous per curiam opinion that in rubber-stamping, with no oversight, some $8.5 million in estate commissions to attorney Louis R. Rosenthal, Feinberg "demonstrate[d] a shocking disregard for the very law that imbued him with judicial authority." It rejected with apparent disdain Feinberg's defense that he had neglected to read the Surrogate's Court Procedure Act (SCPA) and was simply ignorant of his judicial responsibilities.
      "Petitioner disregarded the clear statutory mandates of his office
      repeatedly over the course of more than five years and 475 proceedings, educating himself on the SCPA requirements only in response to a
      newspaper's investigatory series," the court said. "Petitioner's consistent disregard for fundamental statutory requirements of office demonstrates
      an unacceptable incompetence in the law."
      Wednesday's ruling was a major victory for the New York Commission
      on Judicial Conduct, which has increasingly invoked its power to punish
      judges for legal error and professional incompetence. There was never an allegation that Feinberg in any way personally benefited from his conduct  -- only that he had chronically ignored legal requirements in approving millions of dollars in commission for a close personal and political friend.
      A key question was whether the commission overstepped its bounds in
      pursuing a judge for legal errors. Wednesday, the court said it did not,
      with a key finding that legal error and misconduct are "not necessarily
      mutually exclusive." The decision seemingly gives the commission
      license to continue its pursuit of judges whose incompetence or legal
      neglect crosses the line into judicial misconduct.
      Matter of Feinberg v. New York State Commission on Judicial Conduct, 125, is rooted in a newspaper expose.
      The commission launched its inquiry, after the New York Daily News
      reported on Feinberg's awarding of millions of dollars in commissions to Rosenthal, a law school friend and political contributor whom the judge
      had appointed counsel to the public administrator.
      The commission found that Feinberg appointed a marginally qualified
      friend to a lucrative post, signing off on about $8.5 million in
      commissions without ever requesting the mandatory affidavit of legal
      services and virtually always awarding 8 percent of the estate. That is
      2 percent more than the norm in New York City's other four boroughs
      and 2 percent more than the amount agreed to by the state attorney
      general and the predecessors of Feinberg and Rosenthal. That extra
      2 percent garnered Rosenthal about $2 million in excessive fees,
      according to the commission's calculations.
      Typically, Rosenthal requested the extra 2 percent with nothing more than a Post-It note stuck to the final decree, court records show. In every case, the commission alleged, Feinberg awarded the excess fee,
      insinuating that he directed a windfall profit to a chum while ignoring his
      judicial oversight responsibilities.


      Feinberg admitted he had failed to require affidavits as mandated under

      the Surrogate's Court Procedure Act and, once his neglect was
      discovered, apologized profusely.
      The surrogate claimed he was oblivious of the provision and noted that
      he ordered affidavits, prospectively and retroactively, as soon as the
      Daily News probe made him aware of the law. Additionally, Feinberg
      pointed out that his manner of awarding fees was consistent with
      longtime Brooklyn practice.
      Court records show that the firm that preceded Rosenthal as counsel to
      the public administrator, Hesterberg & Keller of Brooklyn, also
      requested the excess fee via Post-It notes and also had that request
      routinely honored by then-Surrogate Bernard M. Bloom. However,
      Bloom required affidavits of legal service, abiding by the Surrogate's
      Act and making the transactions with Hesterberg & Keller more
      At the Court of Appeals, the case distilled to whether Feinberg
      committed misconduct and, if so, the gravity of the offense. The court
      found grave misconduct, rejecting every defense advanced by the
      It criticized Feinberg for neglecting to read the law, for funneling
      lucrative commissions to a friend and for neglecting to give individualized attention to the intestate matters over which, as the elected Kings County surrogate, he had assumed responsibility by looking out for the interests of potential heirs and, where there were no heirs, the state.


      The court also rejected Feinberg's argument that the Commission on

      Judicial Conduct had grossly inflated the total of the alleged
      overpayments, observing in a footnote that the commission's
      calculation of an 8 percent award in most cases was on target. By that calculation, Rosenthal was overpaid by roughly $2 million.
      "Petitioner's failure was made all the more egregious by his appointment,
      without considering other candidates, of a close personal friend and
      political supporter," the court said. "While appointment of a friend does
      not itself convey an appearance of impropriety, when, as here, that
      appointment is coupled with the unsubstantiated award of several million
      dollars in fees from estates that, by definition, lack adversarial parties to challenge the practice, the taint of favoritism is strong."
      This case, the court said, "reflects not mere lapses or errors in judgment
      but a wholesale failure of petitioner's duty, reflecting an indifference if not cynicism toward his judicial office."
      It added that Feinberg's "failure to abide by the legal requirements of his
      office, in a manner that conveyed the appearance of impropriety and
      favoritism, debased his office and eroded public confidence in the
      integrity of the judiciary."
      Attorney General Eliot Spitzer's office has offered to settle any dispute
      with Rosenthal for $729,800, an amount the office has described as a
      "subset" of the overpayment.
      The state Surrogate's Association supported Feinberg as amicus curiae.
      It insisted the commission has no business second-guessing the
      discretionary actions of a judge. But in Wednesday's opinion, the court
      said a judge does not have discretion to ignore the law.
      Commission Administrator and Counsel Robert H. Tembeckjian
      prosecuted the case. Henry M. Greenberg of Greenberg Traurig in
      Albany, N.Y., argued for Feinberg.
      Tembeckjian said that while "it is never pleasant or easy to remove a
      judge," it is occasionally necessary.
      "I am gratified the court forcefully affirmed a fundamental principle in this case -- that public confidence in the integrity and competence of the
      judiciary is essential to the rule of law," Tembeckjian said. "One who
      routinely violates that principle is unworthy of being a judge."

      Greenberg declined comment.


      By deciding the case Wednesday, the court ensured that Feinberg's

      successor will be chosen through a Sept. 13 primary. A ruling after
      July 7 would have permitted Brooklyn Democratic leaders to choose the successor.
      Three candidates had their hats in the ring Wednesday for the Democratic nomination to fill the vacancy: Brooklyn Supreme Court Justices Diana A. Johnson and Lawrence S. Knipel and Civil Court Judge Margarita Lopez Torres.
      Aides to all three judges confirmed that they will begin the process of
      gathering the 4,000 petition signatures needed to qualify for the primary.
      The trio faces a truncated petitioning period because primary candidates
      for other offices were legally permitted to begin circulating petitions on
      June 7.
      Meanwhile, Brooklyn voters for the first time this November will choose
      two surrogates. Last week, the New York Legislature created a second surrogate's position in the borough as a part of a package of 21 new
      judgeships enacted in the closing hours of its session.
      The new law, if signed as expected by Gov. George E. Pataki, will
      become effective Aug. 1, which is too late in the political calendar for
      a primary. Instead, the leadership of the Brooklyn Democratic Party
      will select the candidate.
      The party is expected to select Brooklyn Assemblyman Joseph R. Lentol, who heads the Assembly's Codes Committee, according to sources.

      Daniel Wise contributed to this report.

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