ALBANY, N.Y. (CN) - A judge who resigned amid allegations of decades-old sexual misconduct was rightly removed from office, New York's highest court ruled.
Bryan Hedges left the Onondaga County Family Court bench in April 2012, soon after the state Commission on Judicial Conduct informed him it was opening an investigation into a 1972 incident involving his then-5-year-old niece. Hedges, who would have been 25 at the time, became a judge in 1985.
The formal charge alleged that Hedges "engaged in a sexual act" with the girl, who had been deaf since birth and at age 5 did not know sign language. In his verified answer to the charge, Hedges described the encounter as his niece touching his hand while he masturbated. Both were visiting relatives at a family home in Albany.
The niece came forward with her accusation in early 2012, in the wake of the sexual abuse scandals at Penn State and Syracuse University that involved minors, according to a letter to the commission from Onondaga County District Attorney William Fitzpatrick.
Those headlines "brought back painful memories" for the niece, who will be 46 this June, leading her and her mother to an advocacy group and then the DA, according to the letter.
Fitzgerald wrote that he was "wrestling with what my obligations are" but felt "an ethical obligation as an attorney" to report Hedges to the commission because he presided in the Syracuse family court, which hears cases involving child abuse and neglect.
Hedges, who was in his third 10-year term as a family court judge when he resigned, argued that the commission, which investigates complaints against state, county and municipal judges, lacked jurisdiction because the incident predated his taking office.
The commission, which found that Hedges' actions amounted to misconduct, said his resignation left it with only two options: close the matter or issue a sanction of removal, which would keep him off the bench forever.
It chose the latter. "The nature of respondent's conduct involving an admitted sexual act with a defenseless child is abhorrent and not attenuated by the passage of time," the commission said. "It thus reflects adversely on his fitness to perform the duties of a judge and is prejudicial to the administration of justice notwithstanding that it predates his ascension to the bench."
The six judges of the Court of Appeals accepted the sanction Thursday.
Precedent holds that judges must be held to a higher standard than the public at large, according to the ruling.
"Because 'relatively slight improprieties subject the judiciary as a whole to public criticism and rebuke,' it is essential that we consider 'the effect of the judge's conduct on and off the bench upon public confidence in his [or her] character and judicial temperament,'" the unsigned opinion states.
The judges said they were troubled that the incident involving Hedges occurred 40 years ago and that "exact events are subject to dispute" - a footnote to the commission's decision indicated the niece remembered Hedges encouraging her to enter the bedroom where he was masturbating and "placed her hand on his penis."
"Nevertheless, the misconduct alleged is grave by any standard," the judges said. "We agree with the commission that petitioner's admissions, by themselves, are sufficient to warrant the finding of judicial misconduct," they added. "The admitted conduct undermined the integrity and impartiality of the judiciary and therefore rendered petitioner unfit for judicial office."
Robert Tembeckjian, administrator and counsel to the commission, argued for that body. Robert Julian of Utica represented Hedges.
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