Removal of Surrogate Judge Upheld in N.Y.

     ALBANY, N.Y. (CN) - New York's highest court upheld the removal of a judge for not recusing herself from cases involving three lawyers who were friends or close associates.
     The 5-1 decision from the Court of Appeals also sustains the charges of misconduct against Cathryn M. Doyle, twice elected Albany County surrogate, for the perception of preferential treatment created by those relationships.
     "Her behavior reflects 'exceedingly poor judgment and an inability to recognize impropriety,'" the June 26 opinion states, citing the findings of the state Commission on Judicial Conduct.
     New York's county-based Surrogate's Courts hear cases involving the affairs of decedents, including the probate of wills and the administration of estates. They also handle adoptions.
     In a formal written complaint served on Doyle in 2012, the commission cited nine matters before her court involving attorneys Thomas Spargo, Matthew Kelly and William Cade in which Doyle should have disqualified herself.
     The Court of Appeals noted that Spargo, a former state Supreme Court justice removed from office in 2006, was Doyle's friend for more than 40 years and her personal attorney before being disbarred in 2009.
     Kelly managed Doyle's election campaign for a second 10-year term as surrogate in 2010. He also helped manage her unsuccessful attempt in 2007 to win the Democratic nomination for Supreme Court justice, the court said.
     Cade served as Doyle's personal attorney and represented her when the Commission on Judicial Conduct voted in 2007 to censure her, according to the ruling. She was cited then for "misleading and evasive" testimony during the investigation that led the commission to remove Spargo from the bench.
     Doyle did not dispute that she presided over the matters brought by the men, but contended they involved routine will and estate issues, the court noted.
     "Given the unique nature of Surrogate's Court practice, where many proceedings are submitted on consent and the surrogate's actions are often dictated by statute, she believed that there could be no appearance of impropriety or favoritism," the five-judge majority said.
     But the judges declined to accept Doyle's claim that the recusal obligations of surrogates in uncontested matters were unclear until just recently.
     "The clear thrust of the judicial ethics opinions since at least 1994 has been that a surrogate should recuse from 'routine, non-contested or administrative' matters involving attorneys with whom he or she has a relationship that could give rise to an appearance of impropriety or raise a question as to the judge's impartiality," they said. "It is only by an overly restrictive interpretation of her ethical obligations that petitioner reached a different conclusion."
     Citing Doyle's prior censure, the court also rejected her contention that removal from office was too severe a penalty.
     "While the misconduct at issue is not of the same type that had resulted in her prior censure, it is not, as petitioner maintains, 'wholly unrelated,'" the judges wrote.
     "Without question, a heightened awareness of and sensitivity to any and all ethical obligations would be expected of any judge after receiving a public censure," they added. "Petitioner's failure to exercise that vigilance within just a year of her prior discipline is persuasive evidence that she lacks the judgment necessary to her position."
     Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman and Judges Susan Read, Robert Smith, Jenny Rivera and Sheila Abdus-Salaam joined the opinion. Judge Victoria Graffeo took no part.
     Judge Eugene Pigott dissented, saying censure was the better sanction.
     "We have ... previously stated that '[r]emoval is excessive where the misconduct amounts solely to poor judgment, even extremely poor judgment,'" he wrote, citing a 1997 opinion from the court.
     And while Doyle's disciplinary history should be considered, her previous censure "does not elevate the sanction to removal on these facts, since the earlier discipline was not related to the alleged misconduct here," he said.
     Pigott's opinion noted Doyle's "remarkable" tenure as jurist, court clerk, guest lecturer and law school adjunct.
     William Dreyer of Dreyer Boyajian in Albany represented Doyle. Edward Lindner, deputy administrator for litigation, appeared for the Commission on Judicial Conduct.