NEW YORK, May 22, 2013 /PRNewswire-USNewswire/ -- As he was nearing his last days on the First Judicial Department of the New York appellate court, the antagonistic Judge James Catterson issued an $11 million-plus ruling that helped Bryan Cave, a law firm with very close ties to his own political benefactors.
The ruling raises questions about an appearance of impropriety.
At the very least, the judge should have announced that a partner at Bryan Cave had headed the First Department Judicial Screening Committee at the time that he was nominated and appointed to the bench. He also should have disclosed that former Senator Alphonse D'Amato—the very person who helped get him nominated and put on the ballot in 2012—was very close friends with two partners at Bryan Cave: James Gill, the former judicial screening committee head, and former New York Mayor Ed Koch.
What follows is a brief history of the judicial business as usual that—whether perceived or real—diminishes the public's faith in the law.
In 1998, James M. Catterson was elected a Supreme Court Judge with the political influence of then-Senator Alfonse M. D'Amato and then-Governor George Pataki. At that time, Gill, a partner of a law firm that would later merge with Bryan Cave, was on D'Amato's Judicial Screening Committee (from 1994 to 1998) and was Chairman of the New York State Appellate First Judicial Department Judicial Screening Committee (1997 to 2008). In 2004, Judge Catterson was appointed Appellate Judge of the First Judicial Department with D'Amato's backing while Gill was chairman of the appellate screening committee.
In 2005, a First Department appellate judicial panel, in a unanimous decision against Bryan Cave, upheld a plaintiff's trial court motion in its Court that cited a 1977 New York State Court of Appeals decision and supported its decision with two other appellate decisions. After the 2005 decision, the case continued at the Supreme Court trial level, where three separate trial-level judges concurred with the 2005 Appellate decision. This subsequently resulted in a trial verdict of approximately $11,000,000.
Fast forward to 2012. Judge Catterson was up for reelection and was having difficulty obtaining the nomination from the Republican Party for reelection. He eventually did get the nomination because of the backing and urging of former Senator D'Amato and former Governor George Pataki.
In December 2011, Bryan Cave came before the First Department appellate panel headed by Catterson, raising essentially the same legal arguments as it did in 2005 and in the trial court. Yet here, ignoring both the specific case precedents and the broader "law of the case" doctrine under which such trial court findings of fact are considered sacrosanct, Judge Catterson authored a reversal of the law—and unduly interfered plaintiff counsel's oral argument.
Bryan Cave—where Gill and Koch, both extremely close friends of D'Amato, were partners—clearly benefited from the ruling.
Why Judge Catterson did not reveal his apparent appearance of impropriety and recuse himself from the case is a mystery. But it raises intellectual questions, both particular and general, about the application of the rules of conduct within this vital branch of state government.
Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said in response to the recent legislator arrests that he would push for systemic reform, declaring, "Never waste a crisis."
But the appearance of favoritism can thrive within any structure, particularly if that structure is opaque. Mold grows in the dark. By contrast, as Justice Louis Brandeis famously opined, "Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants."
Here's hoping any reformers will focus a few such rays of hot, bright light on New York's infected judiciary.
For a copy of the relevant legal documents, please email [email protected] or call 212-744-3585.
SOURCE Institute for Judicial Surveys