The New York Commission on Judicial Conduct is considering a complaint against a Bronx Supreme Court judge who made rulings on a divorce case even though her husband was a lawyer representing one of the litigants.
In January, Judge La Tia Martin signed an order of protection banning Keith Williams, 45, of East Tremont, from visiting his three children. Williams’s wife is represented by Steven Young, who is married to Martin.
“This judge and her husband are making the system a mockery, and it is a smack in the face,” Williams said.
According to the New York’s Code of Judicial Conduct, “a judge shall disqualify himself or herself in a proceeding in which the judge’s impartiality might reasonably be questioned,” including when “the judge’s spouse ... is acting as a lawyer in the proceeding or is likely to be a material witness.”
The rules require judges to remove themselves from cases involving their wives and husbands unless they disclose the conflict of interest, and all parties agree to allow the judge to remain on the bench.
It is not clear whether Martin was aware her husband was representing the plaintiff when she signed an order of protection against the defendant in the case.
The history of the divorce case against Williams is a confusing tour through the Bronx Supreme Court. In 2011, shortly after the divorce was initiated, the case was assigned to Judge Nelida Malave-Gonzalez. After Williams' wife complained her husband had become physically threatening, Malave-Gonzalez signed the first of two protection orders against Williams, denying him visitation.
Malave-Gonzalez was later elected to a Surrogate Court judgeship and was replaced by Judge Doris Gonzalez. On Jan. 7, 2013, while Martin was training Gonzalez during her first days on the bench, Martin signed the second order of protection against Williams. On the same day she signed the protection order denying Williams visitation, Martin also signed off on two seemingly contradictory visitation agreements that were more favorable to Williams.
“My suspicion is it was just sloppiness,” said Jeff Pollock, an attorney who serves on the New Jersey Supreme Court Ethics Committee.
Pollock said cases that are shuffled from one judge to another may be more susceptible to oversights, including failing to spot conflicts of interest. Still, failing to disclose a conflict of interest, even accidentally, can result in serious consequences because judicial conduct rules are intended to guard against the mere appearance of impropriety – not just actual bias.
“The whole purpose is to make sure that no one is looking at the judicial system saying ‘the fix is in,’” Pollock said.
Martin and her husband declined comment.
After Williams complained to the Commission on Judicial Conduct in March, both Martin and Gonzalez removed themselves from his case.
David Bookstaver, a spokesman for the Office of Court Administration, said in a statement that "while there may have been some missteps" while the case was pending, the administrative judge for the Bronx "has made every effort to be responsive."
Williams' attorney, Joan James, said she has asked for a new judge to be assigned to the case. She said that during an April 18 conference call, the supervising judge said the case would be moved to the domestic violence division, and she thought the change of judge had been decided on that call. But Bookstaver contends she and the wife's lawyer still must draft a stipulation that a change in judges is acceptable.
“The supervising judge said he was going to call with dates to move this in front of a judge in the domestic violence court," James said. "Ever since, I’ve been calling the court clerk to find out who that judge is.”
James said the last time she called to inquire about a new judge was “earlier this month or late last month.”
Even if Martin’s involvement in the case was an oversight, Williams says the resulting delays and confusion about a replacement judge have had a devastating effect. The court began to enforce the order of protection against Williams after his wife accused him of violently approaching a family member, “pushing her, and almost knocking over,” during an exchange of the children, according to an order to show cause for the protection order.
Williams says the accusation is not true and he was never arrested, but until a new judge is assigned to the case, he cannot challenge the protection order. Williams last visited with his kids more than five months ago.
“It’s hard. It’s hard. Some days I keep a journal to tell them what’s going on and how I miss them. I count the days.”