Surrogate's Court judge challenges removal
— Photo from Court of Appeals video recording
Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman was the most prominent speaker of the seven judges on the New York State Court of Appeals during Cathryn Doyle’s challenge of the decision by the State Commission on Judicial Conduct to revoke her judgeship. The proceeding occurred last Thursday, and a decision is expected in late June or early July.
ALBANY — Last Thursday, the state’s top judges heard arguments surrounding the removal of Cathryn M. Doyle from her post as the Albany County Surrogate’s Court judge.
The State Commission on Judicial Conduct determined last November, by a vote of 8 to 2, that Doyle should have her judgeship revoked due to actions she took between 2007 and 2010. Doyle, who lives in New Scotland, is challenging this decision, and argues that the commission was incorrect in finding any misconduct in her actions.
The State Commission found that Doyle took judicial action in several cases where her impartiality could have been questioned due to her personal relationships with the other parties involved in the proceedings. Surrogate’s Court handles probate and estate proceedings.
The cases at hand include several involving Thomas J. Spargo, a former New York State Supreme Court Justice who was found guilty of two felony charges in 2009. His case was rooted in a 1999 race for town justice in Berne, during which the State Commission said that Spargo spent money on food, drinks, or tokens to influence Berne residents to vote for him.
He initially challenged the commission in federal court, arguing that its allegation had to do with the exercise of his First Amendment liberties. He lost his challenge on appeal. In the 2009 case, the prosecution convinced the jury that Spargo had orchestrated a plan to solicit funds from lawyers with cases before him in order to pay his own bills.
Last Thursday, the chief judge’s first question for Doyle’s lawyer was about her relationship to Spargo, which he described as “a very close, personal relationship.”
The cases also involve Matthew J. Kelly, who had a leadership role in Doyle’s 2007 campaign to be nominated as a Supreme Court Justice and was manager of her 2010 campaign for re-election as surrogate, and William J. Cade, previously Doyle’s lawyer.
Called by The Enterprise this week, Doyle declined comment.
In 2007, Doyle was censured by the State Commission on Judicial Conduct for taking action in and not recusing herself from an estate proceeding in which she did not disclose that the petitioner’s attorney, Cade, had previously been her lawyer.
Censure is a formal reprimanding of a public official for misconduct or inappropriate behavior.
In 2010, while she was running for Surrogate’s Court, Doyle told The Enterprise, “I think a censure is a great learning experience to teach you to be a better judge.” Of whether or not if affected her credibility, Doyle said at the time, “I don’t think it helps. Does it have a negative impact? I’m not sure.”
The formal written complaint that led to her losing her position as a judge was filed in September of 2012. Doyle had been a Surrogate’s Court judge in Albany County since 2001; surrogate’s judges are elected for 10-year terms, and she was re-elected in 2010 for a second term.
Also at issue in her challenge of the State Commission’s decision are cases in which Spargo was the attorney for petitioners in four estate matters that Doyle handled in her court.
Additionally, Spargo was representing Doyle in two lawsuits during one of his proceedings in her court.
During the proceedings last week, several on the panel of seven Court of Appeals judges noted that Surrogate’s Court is a special instance because it deals with estates and wills, and thus each case typically has only one side.
In many cases, the decision of a Surrogate’s Court judge relies completely on the law and there is neither room nor opportunity for anything to be interpreted or altered.
Doyle’s attorney, William J. Dreyer, said that recusing herself from the cases in which she had personal relationships with the other parties involved wouldn’t have made a difference because the decision she came to was the same that any other judge would have come to.
Speaking with The Enterprise in 2010, Doyle said a separate court to handle estates is important because in standard cases there is a living plaintiff and a living defendant, but in managing estates, there are living heirs and a decedent whose wishes must be honored. A judge has to ensure that the rights of the deceased are upheld, which takes a different approach, she said.
“Why should it have been a surprise to a judge that even in an uncontested proceeding that in certain respects is ministerial, why should that have been a surprise to a sitting surrogate that that’s a problem?” Lippman asked of Dreyer, regarding Doyle taking judicial action on cases in which she knew the other party.
“Is your basic argument here that the judge was sincere in what she did, and did not think she was doing anything wrong?” Lippman asked Dreyer.
“[She was] sincere, credible, and candid…” Dreyer responded.
He also noted the thousands of cases she handled compared to the handful for which she was cited.
Later in the proceedings, Judge Eugene F. Piggott, Jr., said of the ministerial cases in question, “They were filings, and I didn’t see where anybody was hurt by them.”
However, the respondent for the State Commission on Judicial Conduct, Edward Lindner, quoted from the laws regarding when a judge must recuse herself, and made clear his view that a judge must follow that law, no matter how straightforward or ministerial the case at hand.
“Wordsmithing and fencing”
Some of the back-and-forth among the judges and attorneys at the proceeding turned on nuances: of when a person helping organize an event becomes a campaign manager, of whether and when a person can be said to be willfully neglecting a known rule verses misinterpreting it.
“The wordsmithing and the fencing is the problem here,” said Lindner.
Regarding Kelly’s involvement in Doyle’s campaigning activities during the time he appeared in her court, Lippman said, “He was in the mode of someone being very active in her campaign.”
In 2010, after appearing in Doyle’s court, Kelly was officially named her campaign manager.
The same year, the commission council approached Doyle regarding her actions and justifications for not recusing herself in these cases.
Doyle asked for guidance from the commission at this time, and wanted to be told if she were doing anything wrong.
After this interaction, when Cade came back to Doyle’s court with a case more substantive than previous cases, Doyle recused herself.
She also recused herself in cases involving Kelly, both before and after the commission approached her about her actions.
“Did she do anything that looks like doing Kelly a favor in that time?” Judge Robert S. Smith asked of Lindner.
“No,” Lindner replied.
The Court of Appeals is expected to hand down a decision on the case in late June or early July.