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NEW YORK CRIMINAL BAR ASS'N v. NEWTON

January 13, 1999

NEW YORK CRIMINAL BAR ASSOCIATION, NEW YORK STATE ASSOCIATION OF CRIMINAL DEFENSE LAWYERS, DIARMUID WHITE, RICHARD WARE LEVITT, RUSSELL M. GIOIELLA, IRA D. LONDON, MURRAY RICHMAN, MARVIN E. SCHECHTER, JOSEPH TACOPINA, JERRY VASQUEZ AND COASTAL OIL NEW YORK INC., PLAINTIFFS,
v.
THE HONORABLE JUANITA BING NEWTON, AS ADMINISTRATIVE JUDGE FOR THE FIRST JUDICIAL DISTRICT, STATE OF NEW YORK, CRIMINAL BRANCH, THE HONORABLE JOAN CAREY, AS DEPUTY CHIEF ADMINISTRATIVE JUDGE OF THE STATE OF NEW YORK FOR THE NEW YORK CITY COURTS, AND THE HONORABLE JONATHAN LIPPMAN, AS CHIEF ADMINISTRATIVE JUDGE OF THE STATE OF NEW YORK, DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Stein, District Judge.

OPINION

Plaintiffs in this action brought pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 allege that the New York County District Attorney controls the assignment of judges to try "high-profile" criminal cases in New York County and that that practice violates plaintiffs' right to due process of law, since, they allege, the D.A. selects jurists who "strongly" favor the prosecution. As set forth below, defendants' motion for judgment on the pleadings is granted on the grounds that the claim of Coastal Oil New York, Inc. is moot and the remaining plaintiffs lack standing to bring this action.

BACKGROUND

Plaintiffs are Coastal Oil New York, Inc., two associations of criminal defense attorneys — the New York Criminal Bar Association and the New York State Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers — and eight individuals who are members of the those bar associations. They name as defendants Justice Juanita Bing Newton, who as Administrative Judge for the criminal branch of New York State courts in New York County administers the system of selecting judges to hear criminal matters, as well as two of her administrative superiors — Justice Jonathan Lippman, who is Chief Administrative Judge of the State of New York, and Justice Joan Carey, who is Justice Lippman's deputy for courts in New York City.

The alleged scheme is simplicity itself: the D.A. purportedly seeks out "strongly proprosecution" judges to issue ex parte orders such as search warrants or wire tap authorizations. (Amended Complaint at ¶ 18). After having thus initially involved a judge in a particular criminal matter, the D.A.'s office then allegedly requests Justice Newton to appoint that same judge to convene and preside over a special grand jury,*fn1 (Id. at ¶¶ 18, 19), a recommendation which has "almost always [been] accepted" by the Administrative Judge. (Id. at ¶¶ 19, 20). Finally, the judge who has been selected to preside over that grand jury is frequently assigned to preside over the subsequent proceedings, including arraignments, pre-trial proceedings, trial, and sentencings. (Id. at ¶ 20). Thus, plaintiffs allege, the D.A. has effectively chosen the judge who presides over the entire criminal proceeding.

Plaintiffs do not dispute that the ultimate determination as to which judge is assigned to preside over special grand juries and any resulting indictments and trials rests exclusively with the Chief Administrative Judge. (Id. at ¶¶ 19, 20, 24, 28). Their complaint rather is that in practice the D.A. — a party to the criminal proceedings — selects the presiding judge who, in the eyes of plaintiffs, is in "a disproportionate number of high-profile cases" a judge who is "strongly prosecution-minded." (Id. at ¶ 21).

The particular incident giving rise to Coastal's grievance is as follows: Sometime in 1995, a prosecutor from the D.A.'s office telephoned Justice Edward J. McLaughlin and asked whether he would be available to preside over a grand jury. (Id. at ¶¶ 31, 32). Justice McLaughlin responded to this inquiry by stating: "I'll do anything I'm asked to do, but get Judge Newton's clearance." (Id. at ¶ 31). Sometime after this conversation, Justice Newton informed Justice McLaughlin that he had been designated to preside over a special grand jury which, as he later discovered, was the grand jury investigating Coastal.

After that special grand jury handed up an indictment, Coastal made an administrative request to have the case transferred from Justice McLaughlin (Id. at ¶ 34); that request was later denied by Justice Newton on the grounds that the selection of Justice McLaughlin had been made in accordance with proper procedure. (Id. Determination annexed to Newton Aff. as Exh. B).*fn2 In addition, Justice Newton informed Coastal that the question of whether the judge assigned to supervise a special grand jury should preside over any indictments filed by that grand jury is "a policy decision that has historically been answered in the affirmative" and that this policy would not be disturbed "absent compelling reasons." (Amended Complaint at ¶ 34).

Coastal then instituted an Article 78 proceeding in the Appellate Division seeking to enjoin Justice Newton from assigning the indictment of Coastal to Justice McLaughlin, to enjoin Justice McLaughlin from presiding over the indictment, and to compel Justice Newton to assign the arraignment of Coastal to the judge sitting in the grand jury part for that term and, thereafter, to randomly assign another judge to preside over that indictment.

The Appellate Division subsequently dismissed the Article 78 petition on the grounds that Coastal's claims were "purely speculative" as it had not asserted that "any ruling made thus far by the presiding judge has been affected by bias." Coastal Oil New York, Inc. v. Newton, 231 A.D.2d 55, 57-58, 660 N.Y.S.2d 428, 429 (1st Dept. 1997). Coastal then unsuccessfully moved to recuse Justice McLaughlin from presiding over its case. (Newton Aff., Exh. H). The New York Court of Appeals subsequently (1) dismissed the appeal Coastal took on constitutional grounds from the dismissal of its Article 78 petition, 91 N.Y.2d 848, 690 N.E.2d 492, 667 N.Y.S.2d 683 (1997), and (2) denied Coastal's motion for leave to appeal, 91 N.Y.2d 808, 692 N.E.2d 130, 669 N.Y.S.2d 261 (1998).

Having pursued its contentions through the state court system, Coastal instituted this federal action in June of 1998 and defendants subsequently made this motion for judgment on the pleadings. Shortly thereafter, Justice McLaughlin granted a renewed motion by Coastal to recuse himself from trying the criminal action. (Order and Decision dated October 5, 1998, annexed to Newton Supp. Aff. as Exh. A). Another judge was assigned to the trial "in a manner that is not at issue here." (Opp. at 36).

Although a new judge has been assigned to preside over Coastal's case, plaintiffs allege that the offending practice by the District Attorney's Office is continuing and they seek a judgment pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 declaring that it violates the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment and enjoining its continuation. (Amended Complaint ¶ 4, prayer for relief).

Defendants have moved for judgment on the pleadings pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(c) on the grounds that (1) the action is moot, (2) the bar associations and individual plaintiffs lack standing, (3) the action is barred by the Rooker-Feldman doctrine, (4) the action is precluded by the doctrine of collateral estoppel, and (5) this Court should abstain from hearing the action pursuant to ...


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