April 4, 2013
Unlike everyone else, however, judges have a unique and unparalleled influence within the legal system. As a consequence, this human fallibility creates a potential for abuse of the legal system.
There are, thankfully, some safeguards in place to prevent this abuse, and a recent case from New York State provides an example of these safeguards in action.
In that case, People v. Adams, two misdemeanor counts of aggravated harassment charges were brought against defendant Adams.
The charges were brought against Adams by “a sitting Rochester City Court Judge,” who accused Adams “of committing a crime by sending her three offensive text messages by cell phone.”
By the way, Adams is the judge’s “neighbor and ex-paramour” (Google definition: “A lover, esp. the illicit partner of a married person”).
Since “[a]ll the Rochester City Court Judges recused themselves from the case,” a judge from another county presided over the case.
Almost two months went by with no plea agreement reached. At this point, at Adams’ attorney’s request, “the case returned to Rochester City Court, where a visiting judge from a neighboring county was assigned to the case.”
Again, though, no plea agreement was reached when the case was returned to the original county – “despite numerous efforts by defense counsel to reach a plea deal.”
Hot Doc: People v. Adams
Obviously frustrated with the lack of progress, Adams’ attorney “filed an omnibus motion including a request that the [district attorney] be disqualified ‘on the grounds of actual prejudice and the existence of a conflict of interest’ and that a special prosecutor be appointed.”
The court denied this request, but, interestingly, the court granted the other request made by Adams’ attorney: for the assignment of new defense counsel.
The reason? “On the basis of the conflicting duties of the Public Defender to cross-examine complainant vigorously and to represent indigent clients seeking favorable treatment from her in City Court.”
In other words, the attorney didn’t want to anger the complainant (the judge) in Adams’ case such that that same judge would punish his clients in other cases.
It turns out that the district attorney’s office were just as afraid of upsetting the judge: The new defense counsel proposed a possible settlement of the case, to which the prosecutor responded that, while in most cases this would be an adequate resolution, he was rejecting the offer “due to the position of the victim.”
The “victim” – the judge – stated that she was “not willing to reduce the charges” and “wanted to go to trial.” No plea offers were ever extended to Adams.
So they did end up going to trial (even after the visiting judge tried to facilitate a plea agreement), and, since the evidence was damning, the jury convicted Adams to one count of aggravated harassment, and the judge sentenced him to one-year probation.
Adams appealed, arguing that the court should have granted his motion to disqualify the district attorney.
The intermediate court affirmed the conviction, but the Court of Appeals of New York – the state’s highest court – reversed.
Although the court noted that there was “no constitutional right to a plea bargain,” the court also found that there was “an unacceptably great appearance of impropriety.”
In case it isn’t abundantly clear at this point, the “great appearance of impropriety” was the judge/complainant exerting an immense amount of pressure on the district attorney’s office to make the case go to trial – so much so that Adams’ original attorney who, after ten years’ experience in the county, “averred that he had never before seen the office take such a hard-line position in a case involving comparable charges and a similar defendant.”
The New York high court then remanded the case to the district court “for further proceedings in accordance with the opinion herein” – which presumably means that the district attorney should offer a plea agreement.
Now, though, the district attorney is pretty much spared any wrath from the complainant/judge, since the attorney is effectively only making a plea offer because of the state’s highest court.
Although it’s unfortunate that a state’s highest judicial body had to intervene to stop judicial impropriety that was essentially caused by a bad breakup, it’s reassuring to know that there are these safeguards in place.