DiFiore faces ethics probe into discipline of head of court officers’ union

ALBANY — A judicial watchdog group is investigating whether outgoing Chief Justice Janet DiFiore abused her position when she wrote a letter last year calling for professional sanctions against the president of New York State. Court Officers Association, which allegedly threatened DiFiore in an email in 2020.

The state Commission on Judicial Conduct has agreed to investigate the complaint filed by NYSCOA’s Dennis Quirk, who accused DiFiore of using the “enormous weight and prestige” of his position to stifle his freedom to expression and get him fired for his email, according to documents provided to the Times Union and people familiar with the matter.

Quirk accused DiFiore of violating judicial ethics rules in an Aug. 24, 2021, “impact letter” the judge sent to Phyllis O. Flug, a retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice. Queens, the Independent Hearing Officer presiding over Quirk’s disciplinary case.

“The commission will review your complaint and communicate with you thereafter,” Robert Tembeckjian, the administrator of the commission on judicial ethics, told Quirk on September 1, 2021.

DiFiore, 66, has served as chief justice of the Court of Appeals since January 2016. The investigation, first reported by Law360.com, surfaced after DiFiore announced on Monday that she was stepping down from her post. at the end of August.

The former Westchester County district attorney and chair of the state’s Joint Public Ethics Commission did not say why she is retiring. “I think I made my contribution. … It’s a good time for me to move on to the next chapter of my professional and personal life,” she said.

Lucian Chalfen, spokesman for the state justice system, said complaints to the Commission on Judicial Conduct are meant to be kept confidential.

“Clearly someone has chosen to break that confidentiality. The Chief Justice will not,” Chalfen said in a statement. “However, she always does the responsible thing, so if she had been asked to respond to a complaint, she certainly would have done so.”

Chalfen added: “And to be clear, his decision to retire is absolutely tied to nothing other than his desire to move on professionally and personally.”

The sequence of events leading to the commission’s involvement began early in the COVID-19 pandemic, according to Quirk’s complaint and documents he filed with the Judicial Conduct Commission.

On June 12, 2020, a New York Post reporter called Quirk to ask the union leader about DiFiore’s request for an investigation of Quirk over allegations of “racial inequality and brutality” committed against black court officers.

Quirk, in turn, emailed DiFiore, documents show. “Your appeal to the NY Post saying I’m a racist is wrong and you know it,” he wrote to her.

The 72-year-old asked DiFiore how she would like damaging stories about her personal life “to be published in every courthouse in New York City.”

Quirk told the commission he was simply drawing a parallel between what DiFiore had said about him and past rumors published about him. It put his job at risk, he said, because DiFiore alleged he violated rules for state court officers.

On August 24, 2021, after all testimony in the disciplinary proceedings against him was completed, DiFiore sent a letter to Flug, the hearing officer, calling Quirk’s email “disrespectful and threatening.” DiFiore instructed Flug to use every power at his disposal to deal with Quirk’s “childish tantrum”.

DiFiore sent the letter on his official stationery as the state’s chief justice.

“I appreciate the opportunity to speak directly to you to describe the severe impact Respondent Dennis Quirk’s dismissive misconduct has had on me, my work, and our entire justice system,” DiFiore said. in Flug.

DiFiore ended the letter: “I implore you to use your authority wisely to uphold the values ​​of our entire justice system.”

The Chief Justice noted that after the May 25, 2000 police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, she appointed Jeh Johnson, who served as US Homeland Security Secretary under President Barack Obama, to conduct an independent review New York’s justice system and issues of institutional racism.

In her letter to Flug, the Chief Justice pointed to a portion of Johnson’s report that documented a “culture of toxicity and unprofessionalism exhibited by court officers toward litigants, litigants’ relatives, and lawyers of color.” and that several colored officers mentioned white court officers using the N-word.

“We also note that some union leaders have themselves posted offensive messages on social media, which has led several law officers to complain that union leadership is a ‘safe haven for racist speech and actions,'” says Johnson’s report.

Although he remains union president, Quirk retired last fall after being suspended for posting DiFiore’s home address in what he said was planning to protest the state mandate. regarding vaccines. He told the Judicial Conduct Commission that DiFiore’s letter to Flug was highly inappropriate, violated the rules that guide the Chief Justice, and was “an unsolicited testimony as a character witness against me and my rights to a due process and the First Amendment”.

A commission spokesperson could not be reached on Tuesday.

Comments are closed.