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State commission begins Blackburne investigation

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By law members of the state Commission on Judicial Conduct cannot comment on whether or not a probe is under way, but the unions confirmed Monday that a court officer and a detective involved in the case were to appear before the commission on Tuesday.

"The investigation is in competent hands," said Michael Pallodino, president of the Detectives' Endowment Association. "I have confidence in the commission."

But City Councilman Charles Barron (D-Brooklyn) said press coverage of the St. Albans judge and critical statements by the unions and Mayor Michael Bloomberg had "contaminated" the proceedings.

"I'm not confident she's going to get a fair shake," he said.

Barron held a rally for Blackburne on the steps of City hall last Thursday, the same day that the Queens Council of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People also staged one at Supreme Court in Kew Gardens.

The rally at City Hall was attended by Hazel Dukes of the NAACP; Eric Adams of 100 Blacks in Law Enforcement; the judge's husband, Elmer Blackburne, a former borough Democratic district leader; City Councilman James Sanders Jr. (D-Laurelton); and Councilman Leroy Comrie (D-St. Albans).

"She's had an impressive judicial record and she's been an active community person," Comrie said. "Her record as a justice is fair and impartial."

Blackburne, a judge in Queens Treatment Court in Kew Gardens for drug cases, has accepted reassignment to Civil Court in Jamaica until the investigation is completed, a process which could take up to one year.

She has been accused by law enforcement unions of ordering a court officer to lead Derek Sterling, a convicted drug dealer, out of her courtroom through a private door to elude a detective seeking his arrest on a separate robbery charge. Sterling was in the court for a routine checkup on his progress in a treatment program, and Blackburne stated on the record that she thought the detective was employing a "ruse" to make the arrest, a tactic she resented.

Her action drew the wrath of the unions and Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly, and the mayor called Blackburne's order an "outrage."

David Bookstaver, a spokesman for the Office of Court Administration, said as a general rule police can make arrests in the courthouse hallways but not inside the courtroom.

"That's not an appropriate forum," he said, adding that if a judge had a problem with an officer, the jurist could file a complaint with the Police Department's Internal Affairs section.

After the Blackburne incident, the court officers' unions issued a memo to their members telling them to detain any suspect wanted by law enforcement and to arrest anyone who interferes with that duty.

Although not commenting directly on Blackburne's actions, Borough President Helen Marshall stood up for Blackburne's record and her work in the drug court.

"She probably wanted to set a certain atmosphere in that court that this is a place that treats you a little different," she said of those who went before the justice. "I consider her an extremely capable judge."

The commission investigating the incident is composed of five lawyers, four judges and two lay people chosen by Gov. George Pataki. Those members employ nine other lawyers to conduct inquiries for them.

After the lawyers finish the initial probe, the commission will decide whether to formally charge the judge and hear the case. It could then be up to a year before the members find Blackburne innocent of wrongdoing or issue a private warning, a mild public reprimand, a severe public reprimand or a call for her removal. The last step has occurred 144 times since 1978, a spokesman said.

Blackburne can then either accept the ruling or appeal. She did not return phone calls seeking comment.

Of Blackburne's supporters who could be reached, all said the rallies were not an endorsement of her behavior but a call for a fair inquiry.

"We should await the outcome of the investigation process," said former St. Albans Councilman Archie Spigner. "She shouldn't be demonized or vilified."

Blackburne's past continues to be brought up by her critics. She resigned from her post as head of the city Housing Authority after allegedly using public funds for junkets and an office redecoration. And in 2002, she dismissed cop shooting charges against William Hodges of Jamaica. After being convicted of biting a different officer last week, Hodges gave credit to Blackburne for her previous decision, according to press reports.

That past should not be brought up now, some of her supporters have said, nor should the fact that Blackburne is black.

"She does not hate the police," said the Rev. Charles Norris of the Bethesda Missionary Baptist Church of Jamaica. "We did not raise the race issue at all. We want the process to be fair."

Reach reporter Michael Morton by e-mail at news@timesledger.com or by calling 718-229-0300, Ext. 154.

Posted 7:06 pm, October 10, 2011
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