ALBANY, N.Y. (CN) — Representing a judge facing removal from office over his use of the c-word, a lawyer told New York’s highest court Tuesday not to embrace so harsh a punishment for a first offense.
“It’s obviously inappropriate,” attorney Michael Blakey told the New York Court of Appeals. “Let me take a time out quickly to say that we’re not offering a defense or a valid excuse for these words that were used. But it’s still relevant for us to discuss the context of the words used for the purposes of mitigating the punishment.”
Blakey’s client, the Long Island judge Paul Senzer, was suspended last year from his seat on the Northport Village court for using “gender-based slurs.” Senzer admitted that, prior to his taking the bench, he sent clients emails in 2014 and 2015 in which he referred to opposing counsel as a “cunt on wheels,” derided a family court referee as an “asshole,” and described a client’s daughter as a “bitch” and “scumbag.”
The State Commission on Judicial Conduct recommended removal from office in a 8-0 vote. “Every judge must be mindful of the duty to avoid any conduct or statements, even off the bench, that undermine public confidence in the judiciary or respect for our system of justice as a whole,” the commission wrote in its decision.
Three commissioners dissented on a separate allegation of a racial epithet but still agreed Senzer should be removed over the sexist emails.
During Tuesday’s hearing before the New York Court of Appeals, Senzer’s attorney Blakey argued that the use of the word “cunt” was a “left-hand compliment” for the opposing counsel, and that kicking Senzer off the bench was too extreme a punishment for a single offense.
The three female judges on the Court of Appeals seemed to take issue, however, with Blakey’s line of argument.
Senzer “denigrated every stakeholder in the system,” Chief Judge Janet Fiore said. “The litigant, the litigant’s lawyer, the court-appointed referee. He disparaged the entire system, and he was making those statements as an officer of the court and as a person who is a representative of the very system that he, over the court of his representation, continued to denigrate and disrespect.”
Judge Jenny Rivera also took issue with the idea Senzer’s comments were a one-off event. “It wasn’t said once, right?” she said. “You say there’s no pattern, but there is at a minimum a recurrence of the conduct … of using words that are disparaging to females, and using other words that are also problematic.”
Blakey said all the comments involved one client, and that Senzer should be publicly censured. “Almost 20 years of no problems,” he said of Senzer. “He has a great career overall.”
“I suppose it’s laudable that he didn’t use this kind of language while he was sitting in court,” commission attorney Edward Lindner said of questions that the emails were uncharacteristic of Senzer’s overall career and that he had used the words only in emails.
Lindner also noted it was not just the use of the c-word. “It’s not just that word,” he said, noting Senzer had also once referred to opposing female counsel as “eyelashes” in a separate case.
“It’s reducing a woman, a female professional, to her appearance,” Lindner said.