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May 9, 2007


A weblog about the politics and affairs of the old and glorious City of Albany, New York, USA. Articles written and disseminated from Albany's beautiful and historic South End by Daniel Van Riper. If you wish to make a response, have anything to add or would like to make an empty threat, please contact me.

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May 9 , 2007

Holding The Judge Accountable

Justice Teresi is not behaving like an unopposed incumbent . . .
for good reason

Judges are human beings like anybody else. Whether we say it out loud or not, they are political creatures who are affected by political pressure and political considerations. Therefore, it is up to us, the citizens, to keep account of their actions, like we should with any other politicians. Judges need to be constantly reminded that they are working for us, not the other way around.

About a month ago I received a letter from Justice Joseph C. Teresi of the NY State Supreme Court, Third Judicial District. It began, “Dear Fellow Democrat.” Yes, that would be me. “As you may know, I am running for reelection to the Supreme Court...”

One of the perks of being a Democratic Party committee person is that I regularly receive these amusing letters asking for my support. Even though the Democratic Party Old Boys hate our guts and reduced our election district down to one City block, The Wife and I are still members of the Democratic Committee. We may be microscopic, but we are on all the mailing lists.

Judge Teresi
Teresi, 2007

“I am writing to each committee person of your county asking for your continued support in my reelection campaign,” Justice Teresi wrote me in his personalized form letter. “My campaign has been up and running since last October.” That’s quite true. He's running hard.

On March 29 of this year, Teresi informed the State Board of Elections that so far he had raised $110,200 for his reelection campaign. That’s a lot of campaign money for a judge, but so far it's not the record for a Supreme Court justice. In 2005 one candidate in the Third Judicial District raised over a quarter million dollars. But many observers believe that Teresi is going to far surpass that record before November.

Isn’t that bizarre? Teresi is an incumbent, having served most of one fourteen year term (!) on the Supreme Court. Sitting judges don't get challenged very often, especially if they are supported by a major party. As far as I’ve heard, nobody has come forward with intentions to challenge Teresi.

Teresi, 14 years ago
Teresi, 1994

So why the early campaigning, why all the money? Clearly, the man is feeling very insecure. His long term has not exactly been without controversy and criticism. This guy has left behind a long trail of anger, mistrust and debris a mile wide. He’s a judge with a bad resume.

Where to begin. The NY State Board of Judicial Conduct hands out three levels of punishment to judges: public admonishment, censure, and removal from office. Admonishment is a light rap on the knuckles, a minor indiscretion. A censure is a warning that the judge is screwing up badly. Removal is triggered by open criminality.

Justice Teresi has been censured twice by the Board. The first time Teresi was censured in 2000 for repeatedly forcing litigants before his bench to settle cases when he ordered them to do so, in one case throwing some poor guy in jail because he wouldn’t back down. Basically, Teresi denied them the right to a fair hearing. The same censure also detailed a case where he tossed some other guy in jail without any sworn testimony or evidence that he had done wrong.

This first censure used the following words to describe Teresi: biased, improper, impatient, injudicious, and indiscriminate. “By his actions... [Teresi] failed to ‘respect and comply with the law’ and to ‘be faithful to the law’ in violation of the ethical standards.”

The next one is very interesting. In the 2004 censure by the Board, Teresi was found to have been tampering with a witness scheduled to testify in his courtroom. He hauled the witness off into his private chambers. Alone. When she emerged, she no longer wanted to testify. Seriously. He did that.

They call this ex parte, which means “for one party.” For those of us who are not judges, it’s called a felony. Teresi had been warned about this sort of thing two years earlier, but apparently a warning didn’t mean much to him. Like some wise guy juvenile delinquent, he seems to have been testing the system to see how much he could get away with before the system came down hard.

The case was nothing special, a run of the mill DWI. But the witness, the one Teresi apparently pressured into withdrawing testimony, was very special. She was a Catholic nun, sister Phyllis Herbert, director of the Albany Honor Court, which is part of the State Probation system.

Now, it is unclear exactly why Teresi did this. It wasn't a very smart thing to do. What made it important is that it was one of many major indiscretions by Teresi involving members of the local Catholic Church hierarchy. This particular indiscretion was easily proven to be a violation, that's why it became the basis for another censure.

Remember the Catholic priest child abuse cases? Lots of adult men were coming forward and accusing Catholic priests of molesting them when they were children. It seems that this happened quite a bit all over the country. The Albany Diocese found itself fending off a fair number of these lawsuits.

Around this time, an attorney named John Aretakis brought three of these child abuse cases into court against the Albany Diocese. As luck would have it, he found himself arguing the merits of these cases in front of Teresi. Eventually, Mr. Aretakis was able to construct plausible evidence that Justice Teresi was openly colluding with the Albany Diocese. Or, as Mr. Aretakis contended, Teresi was taking orders from the Diocese. Basically, Teresi was taking one side against the other in his courtroom.

Did I mention that Justice Joseph Teresi is a devout Catholic, and that he attended Catholic schools? Not only did Mr. Aretakis’ allegations of collusion with the Diocese lead to the second censure, the allegations forced Teresi to remove himself from hearing the three child abuse cases.

And that brings us to to a contentious Save the Pine Bush (SPB) case that came up before Teresi. Contentious, that is, for me.

Back in 2001, SPB tried to stop the Albany Diocese of the Catholic Church from building a high end fancy "supportive living facility" for rich old people that they called Avila House. The facility was planned for Pine Bush land owned by the Albany Diocese right smack dab on top of a vital migration corridor for Karner Blue Butterflies. Indeed, most experts believed that the Karner Blue could not survive in Albany without this corridor.

Perhaps a controlled burn could restore this ecosystem
Avila: Perhaps a controlled burn could restore this ecosystem

Top officials in the Albany Diocese readily admitted that the reason for the Avila project was purely monetary. The Catholic Church, after all, is a corporation. Indeed, it is the original corporation, the one upon which all other corporations are modeled. At the end of the day, after the masses and the charities, the Church's bottom line must be black with not a hint of red.

It seems that the Albany Diocese was going broke because of the expense of fighting the priest abuse cases. Thus they needed a new source of revenue. Never mind that their new source of revenue would destroy an important piece of Pine Bush and perhaps drive the Karner Blue into extinction locally. God’s creation had to be ruined to keep the Diocese solvent.

I got into some serious screaming arguments with The Wife over this case. (Well, she screamed. I turned very quiet.) You see, The Wife is a third generation Unitarian Universalist. Like most godless Protestants, she does not understand Catholics. She considers Catholics to be a kind of exotic Protestant, sort of like Jews but with more statues and candles. It's not her fault that she thinks that way, it's the way she was raised. Anyway, like all the rest of the Protestants, she's going straight to Hell.

I kept telling her that the Avila House lawsuit was doomed unless SPB directly confronted the issue of back door influence by the Albany Diocese. No Catholic judge would ever rule against the Church, and no Catholic politician would support a suit against the church. Not without very good reason, such as loud publicity. She thought I was just being nasty.

At the time, The Wife and the rest of SPB didn’t understand that a good Catholic simply does not defy the will of the Bishop. If the Bishop wanted to make money by planting an old folk's palace in the Pine Bush, then as far as the local politicians were concerned it was a done deal. You see, most of our local politicians are Catholic. Supreme Court Justice Joseph Teresi is a Catholic. For this reason, in my opinion, Teresi was very unlikely to fairly consider the merits of this environmental case.

To make a long story short, in 2003 Teresi found for the Diocese fast and furiously, and his decision held up on appeal. At about the same time, Mr. Aretakis was establishing that Teresi has a bad habit of colluding with the Diocese. It sure looks to me like Teresi did his Bishop a big favor by quickly handing down this decision against the Pine Bush ecosystem. If SPB had looked for and publicized the collusion between Teresi and the Diocese like Mr. Aretakis did, then perhaps this piece of Pine Bush could have been saved from destruction.

Today, this important part of the Pine Bush is cut to pieces and the Karner Blues nearby are dying out. And the rich old folks who live in Avila House are complaining about how the nearby Albany City Dump smells really, really bad.

The Wife still hasn’t forgiven me for being right.

Finally, let’s talk about Amadou Diallo. He was a poor, hard working guy who got ambushed by four panicky, unprofessional cops on the streets of New York City. These plainclothes cops cornered him in a doorway and fired some 47 bullets at him, hitting him with thirteen.

Amadou Diallo
Amadou Diallo

Decent folks down in The City were outraged and terrified. Who would be the next victim of Rudy Giulliani’s out of control gang of shooters? Personally, whatever the story, I wanted these dangerous clowns off the streets and preferably locked up. That could be me cornered in a doorway eating bullets while visiting The City. It’s bad enough we have to worry about criminals, we shouldn’t have to worry about armed nitwits with powers of arrest. I want to be able to trust the cops, not fear them as random killers.

As most of you may recall, the trial of the four panicky unprofessional cops was brought up to Albany to be tried in front of Teresi. And somehow, the four arrogant shooters were absolved of all personal responsibility for the slaughter of Amadou Diallo.

I spoke with a member of the jury right after the verdict, who shall remain unidentified. I’ve known this person as informed and intelligent, and he/she had good reasons to have not heard about the case beforehand, thus he/she was selected to sit on the jury.

This person told me that he/she was shocked when he/she emerged from the trial. Apparently, Teresi managed to suppress a lot of vital information that the prosecutors did not bother to challenge. “There were so many things we didn’t know about,” he/she said.

He/she told me that Teresi lectured the jury over and over ad nauseum, leaning over them and telling them that they had to be absolutely certain before convicting the shooters. “He practically told us we had to acquit,” he/she said. “After a while it got very intimidating. In the end, we followed his instructions. We could find no reason to convict.”

I asked him/her if he/she would have voted differently if he/she had known all the facts, but he/she preferred to not offer a reply.

The night after the verdict was handed down, Teresi attended a congratulatory celebration for the acquitted shooters, at which he gave a speech to the cheering crowd of misguided cops. So much for impartiality. Enough said.

“I look forward to working with you in the upcoming months,” wrote Joseph Teresi at the end of the letter, “to bring this reelection campaign to a successful conclusion.”

No, Justice Teresi. I don’t think I’ll be working with you. You’ve got enough big money and endorsements from big old boys. You don’t need help from a little nobody like me. And you won't be getting it.

Maybe some day, Justice Teresi, you’ll use your position to cause me suffering because of what I'm writing here. You'll swing your gavel and nail my butt to your bench. But I won't pander to someone like you, even if you are a judge. I’ll take that risk and keep my self respect.


[TIME FOR DISCLOSURE: The author of the article was raised Catholic. He is still qualified to receive communion after confession, although he realized recently that he has forgotten most of the Act of Contrition (“I believe in one holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church...”) He still styles himself an Ex-Catholic, and continues to regard Protestantism as a degenerate form of Catholicism. Thus, he claims the right to mercilessly criticize the Catholic Church and practicing Catholics whenever he feels the urge.]

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