Date: Tuesday, January 4, 2005
Panel censures justice for talk with witness
Woman declined to testify in DWI case after Teresi's commentsPublished January 5, 2005 Kinderhook Town and Village Court Justice Edward Williams was admonished by the state Commission on Judicial Conduct, not removed from office. His status was incorrectly shown in a graphic that appeared in Tuesday's A section. By MICHELE MORGAN BOLTON Staff Writer
ALBANY - State Supreme Court Justice Joseph C. Teresi was censured Monday by a watchdog group for having a private discussion with a witness in a pending case that ultimately persuaded her not to testify. This marks the second time in four years the state's Commission on Judicial Conduct has censured Teresi, who has been criticized for his courtroom temperament. Teresi also was censured in 2001 for being discourteous and putting people in jail for contempt without hearings. He later withdrew himself from civil cases pending against the Roman Catholic Diocese of Albany in 2002 after being accused of other alleged inappropriate private communications. Eight members of the 11-member oversight commission agreed on censure for Teresi Monday.
One member, Alan J. Pope, dissented in favor of admonishment. Two members, Stephen R. Coffey and Colleen C. DiPirro, were not present. Teresi, 58, a Delmar Democrat, has been on the bench 11 years. The justice, who gained national attention after presiding over the high-profile Amadou Diallo trial, said he had no comment Monday. His lawyer, Robert Roche, could not be reached. A censure is a public criticism and does not carry a fine or suspension. It is a step above an admonition, the lowest form of reprimand. The severest penalty imposed by the commission is a recommendation that a judge be removed from the bench. Supreme Court justices are paid $136,700 a year. The state Court of Appeals decides whether to uphold or adjust the recommendations.
While Teresi had no comment on the commission's decision, his boss - Third Department Administrative Judge George B. Ceresia - described his deputy as one of the hardest working judges in the district. "He carries a civil and criminal caseload, yet is always the first one to volunteer," Ceresia said. "And he's respected by all the other judges." Jeffrey Grune was on trial before Teresi in June 2003 on two counts of felony driving while intoxicated. On the morning of June 25, Grune's lawyer, Randall Kehoe, told Teresi he planned to call Sister Phyllis Herbert to testify as an expert witness for his client. Herbert, a registered nurse and Roman Catholic nun, is the director of the Albany Honor Court, a program of the state Division of Probation and Correctional Alternatives that handles some cases outside the traditional legal system. Herbert has worked with Teresi in that capacity for years and visited the judge during a lunch break in his chambers that day to discuss another pending Honor Court case, the determination said. Then Grune's case came up. Teresi told the nun he was "surprised" she planned to testify about Grune's blood alcohol content, stating he thought she normally remained "neutral." "Following her conversation with (Teresi), Sister Herbert decided that she would not testify on behalf of the defendant," the decision said. "(She) expressed grave concerns that her testimony might affect her neutrality in Albany Honor Court matters" and later termed it a potential "conflict of interest." The judge's conduct "created an appearance of impropriety and shows insensitivity to the high ethical standards required of judges," the decision said. Compounding the harm, Teresi then denied a defense request for an adjournment to get another expert witness, court papers said. Grune was later convicted and is serving up to seven years in prison.
Although Teresi didn't view his exchange with Herbert as prohibited communication, he now realizes he should have put the matter on the record "to err on the side of caution," the report said. The justice now "appreciates" that he should have been sensitive to the appearances of the conversation, documents said. In January 2004, Albany County Judge Stephen W. Herrick rejected Grune's request for a new trial, stating there was no evidence Teresi threatened reprisals against Honor Court if the nun took the stand. "According to Judge Teresi, he spoke briefly with Sister Phyllis while she was in his office and merely told her that he did not know she testified as an expert witness," Herrick ruled. "(She) corroborated the judge's recollection, stating in her affidavit that she was in the judge's office when he made a general comment. ... (She) continues that ... at no time was she pressured not to testify by Judge Teresi." However, an October Appellate Division decision reversed one of the DWI convictions against Grune on a technicality and ordered a new trial on that count. That was good news for his lawyer. "I'd love for Mr. Grune to get a new trial, and I'll do it pro bono for him," Kehoe said. "What Sister Phyllis was going to say on the stand was at the time of the operation of the vehicle Mr. Grune was not intoxicated." Grune admitted he'd had a few beers but his body hadn't had time yet to process the alcohol, he said: "I'm going to file a motion to vacate the judgment based on newly discovered evidence." Also on Monday, the commission recommended that Junius Town Court Justice C. Ernest Brownell of Seneca County be removed from office for hearing a case without the defendant being there. Brownell also was cited for misusing court funds to pay for a judgment he'd awarded in the same case on the plaintiff's behalf.
Michele Morgan Bolton can be reached at 434-2403 or by e-mail at email@example.com.
Factbox: JUDGE RULINGS A Capital Region record of the Commission on Judicial Conduct since 1992: CENSURES State Supreme Court Justice Joseph C. Teresi, 2004, 2001Grafton Town Justice Gary Moore, 2001Moreau Town Justice Edward Tracy, 2001 ADMONITIONS Albany City Court Justice Stephen W. Herrick, 1998Albany City Court Justice David Duncan, 2000Hoosick Falls Village Justice Thomas Restino, 2001Nassau Village Justice Alexander Shannon, 2001Malta Town Justice James Nichols Sr., 2001 REMOVALS Troy City Court Justice Henry Bauer, 2004East Greenbush Town Justice Charles Assini, 1999Glenville Town Justice Kenneth Gibbons, 2002Schenectady County Surrogate Court Justice Neil Moynihan, 1992Kinderhook Town and Village Justice Edward Williams, 2001 VOLUNTARILY STEPPED DOWN Albany City Court Justice Cheryl Coleman, 2004 ONGOING INVESTIGATION State Supreme Court Justice Thomas Spargo STATEWIDE 234 judges censured since 1978205 admonished145 judges recommended for removal