Stories & Grievances
Corruption and Secrecy in the Politico-Educational Complex is a Costly Combination
We cannot hold our political and education officials accountable for their actions without opening the door to cameras in the courtroom and in our schools, and putting sunshine in our administrative proceedings.
The E-Accountability Opinion: Any organization that acts in a corrupt or fraudulent way must be stopped quickly so that the least amount of financial and human costs are incurred. These costs include personal injury, lawsuits, and company bankruptcy. The politico-educational complex has surrounded itself with rules, regulations, and laws that hide everything and that punish anyone who says anything about it in court or in another venue. Education administrators are changing federal law to punish a child's misbehavior even though the child has special needs; test scores are changed to support incompetent educators who deny students a free and appropriate education; teachers are accused of crimes that they may have not committed in order to remove them from the school because they "know too much"; and, the local newspapers as well as national publications and television news shows never pick these stories up. The media is the strongest supporter of the status quo, and it is not surprising, as the publishers and business managers need the ad revenue to survive. One of the first thing that Mayors and newly elected officials do is make deals with the media. We have been told by reporters in New York that "they", the reporters, have been told they will lose their jobs if they write about what is really happening.
As Mr. Robert Tembeckjian, administrator of and counsel to the New York State Commission on Judicial Conduct, writes in the following op-ed article from the May 22 New York Times, "...an open proceeding would shed important light on the rare instance in which a formal charge against a judge is dismissed without any disciplinary action. It would provide the public with the means to assess that a dismissal was deserved and the system was honest."
Don't we all believe that the secrecy in our courtrooms and in our central government agencies is protecting wrong-doing?
We need to open our government, and vote for this important change in holding our government and education officials accountable for their actions, otherwise we will never "catch the bad guys" and will pay dearly.
May 22, 2005
How Judges Hide From Justice
By ROBERT H. TEMBECKJIAN, NY TIMES
IN the last three months, the New York State Commission on Judicial Conduct has publicly disciplined four metropolitan-area judges: two from Brooklyn, one from Manhattan and one from Westchester. Apart from some intense public commentary over the merits of these decisions - three public censures and one removal from office - these cases had at least one thing in common. They were all conducted in secret. That should be changed.
Judges are among the most powerful of public servants. They decide who goes to jail, who wins or loses millions of dollars and who gets custody of children. Public confidence in their integrity and impartiality is essential to the rule of law. While a vast majority of judges are honorable, there will always be some who engage in unethical behavior. Disciplining such judges is important business that should be transacted in public, just as any civil or criminal trial would be.
In 38 states, judicial misconduct hearings are indeed open to the public. Not so in New York, where proceedings that stretch over months are held behind closed doors. Only when the results are announced does the public even learn such cases existed. By then, it is usually too late to convey in a meaningful way the strength of the case, the credibility of the witnesses and the merits of the defense. The four recent decisions in New York offer cases in point.
The commission voted to remove a Surrogate's Court judge in Brooklyn for awarding a long-time friend millions of dollars in fees from estates where there was no executor, without confirming that he had done enough work to earn such fees. The judge is appealing the decision.
The commission censured a Westchester Family Court judge who attempted to influence other judges and court workers on behalf of friends in two divorce and custody cases, and who testified in a manner she conceded was inaccurate. It also censured a Brooklyn Criminal Court judge for coming off the bench in unprovoked anger and grabbing and screaming at a defense lawyer. Finally, it censured a Manhattan Civil Court judge for presiding over a personal injury case involving a litigant who was also a lawyer with whom she continued to socialize, and to whom she awarded a fiduciary appointment worth about $80,000 in fees, while the case was pending.
Reasonable people may differ with these decisions. As the prosecutor of judicial misconduct cases in New York, I myself am sometimes at odds with the commission. Yet while some criticized the removal as severe, and others derided the censures as lenient, most tended to miss the context and nuance of the deliberations. The subtleties of an individual disciplinary decision tend to get short shrift in the news. Were the press and public able to follow along as these cases unfolded, the disciplinary process would not seem so sudden and mysterious, and citizens would be better informed along the way. For example, the case against the Brooklyn Surrogate's Court judge lasted 22 months, and the record was over 13,000 pages long. It would be difficult, if not impossible, to capture the complexities of such a proceeding in a single article that reported the final result.
New York's chief judge, Judith Kaye, proposed legislation in 2003, which the commission endorsed, to open up the disciplinary process at the point when a judge is formally charged with misconduct. Unfortunately, the Legislature did not act. Perhaps the commission's recent decisions might spur the Senate and Assembly to revisit the issue. The more citizens know about what goes on at the commission, the more likely they will appreciate that no case is as cut and dried as a critic may suggest. The press and public could follow the arguments as they develop, rather than try to digest them all at once when the decisions are rendered.
Moreover, an open proceeding would shed important light on the rare instance in which a formal charge against a judge is dismissed without any disciplinary action. It would provide the public with the means to assess that a dismissal was deserved and the system was honest.
In short, a public process would transform judicial discipline from a secretive game to one in which the commission's judgments were open to scrutiny and improvement as we went along, while there was time enough to make a difference. Public confidence in the judiciary, and in the disciplinary system that holds them accountable, requires nothing less.
Robert H. Tembeckjian is administrator of and counsel to the New York State Commission on Judicial Conduct.
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