TAN DEFENSE DONATED $1K TO TRIAL JUDGE
Paul was right when he wrote the Thessalonians.
“Abstain from all appearance of evil,” he warned them.
It is good advice for all, but probably for none more so than those who do business in our courts – the lawyers and judges who guide our legal system.
Recognizing that fact, the ethics of the bench and the bar are high, and intended to guarantee integrity and public respect. In a system built on public confidence as much as anything else, avoiding the appearance of evil is crucial.
Which gets us to the recent Charlie Tan murder trial.
The judge in that matter, well-respected Monroe County Court Judge James Piampiano, is running for state Supreme Court, and – like all candidates – is receiving campaign contributions.
That is an awkward thing, but a function of our system. Judges have campaign funds, and people can contribute. And judges who are to be impartial can receive contributions from people who appear before them.
That's where the appearance of evil comes in.
When there's a high-profile case, and lawyers arguing that case donate to the judge hearing that case, that makes people wonder. If not about the integrity of the people involved, then about their intelligence.
Avoid the appearance of evil.
And writing or accepting a campaign check through the process that leads to a trial certainly doesn't do that. Instead, it raises suspicions and concerns. It is like Pete Rose betting on baseball, it raises doubts about the integrity of the process.
But back to the Charlie Tan case.
The defense lawyers were Brian DeCarolis and James Nobles.
On the 21st of March – two weeks and two days after Charlie Tan first appeared before Judge Piampiano, and after he became represented by Brian DeCarolis and James Nobles – each lawyer donated $300 to the Piampiano campaign. James Nobles gave an additional $150 on July 22, and DeCarolis threw in $250 on August 19.
That's a total of $1,000.
And that's no good.
Walking into the case of the year, and walking into the biggest election of the judge's life, both sides of this equation should have known to avoid this.
Yet neither did.
And that looks bad.
It doesn't seem to violate any rules, and it may not even be far out of the ordinary, it may be merely a symptom of a larger weakness in the judicial contribution system. It may be a reality for most sitting judges who are running for office and hearing cases. It may even have been done by Judge Piampiano's opponents in the looming Supreme Court election.
But Judge Piampiano is in the news because of the Charlie Tan trial. His decision to declare a deadlock the jury had not requested spared Charlie Tan from conviction, some jurors felt, and his decision to talk to the press after he declared the mistrial has, according to two prominent officials, brought a reported complaint to the state Commission on Judicial Conduct.
Neither of those things is a smoking gun.
But they are anomalies in a system that enshrines consistency.
And now there is the issue of the contributions.
Smart lawyers wouldn't have made them, and a smart judge wouldn't have accepted them.
Contributions to sitting judges' campaigns, under New York law, are "blind," meaning only the judge's campaign finance committee is supposed to know about them. The judge is supposed to remain ignorant of who his donors are.
In a paper-based world, maybe high personal integrity kept a judge's nose out of the donor books. But in the online world, where every donor's information is available after a couple of clicks, it strains credibility that judges are the only people who don't know who's giving their campaigns money.
And even in a situation where a judge somehow never finds out who his donors are, shouldn't that judge nonetheless tell his committee to avoid donations that seem improper?
Do I think something crooked went on?
The lawyers and the judge in this matter have solid reputations for integrity. None of them are snakes. Nobles and DeCarolis are the young stars of the defense bar, and Piampiano is likely to be elevated to Supreme Court and serve there honorably and well.
But they all are smarter than this, and they all owe the system better than this. And if all they did was reflect the common practice of donating liberally to stay on every judge's good side, then it's time to attack that practice.
Lawyers should not donate to judges before whom they have a current case pending, and judges should not accept donations from lawyers who have an open matter before them. Some argue that that would eliminate most lawyer donations. Good. The appearance that you have to donate to stay on the good side of a campaigning judge is evil.
Like these donations.
While possibly completely innocent, a high percentage of people hearing of these donations by these lawyers to this judge during this time frame will think something is amiss.
And that weakens public trust in the legal system.
And that's what the ethics of the bar and the bench are intended to avoid.
Paul was right when he wrote the Thessalonians.
And the legal community would be smart to heed his advice.
- by Bob Lonsberry © 2015