Thursday, August 14, 2008

Westchester Guardian/Catherine Wilson.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Catherine Wilson, Bureau Chief
Northern Westchester

Judicial “Intervention”

A visit to the web site of the New York State Unified Court System these days reveals a significant obstruction of justice and misuse of taxpayers’ funds. Plastered across the top of this website is a banner announcing the “Judicial Compensation Lawsuit”. Our judges are currently embroiled in a battle with the State Legislature over their salaries.

The judges are whining that they should be compensated commensurate to attorneys in private practice. However, a fact blatantly omitted
from the arguments from our judges in support of their pay increases is the part-time nature of their positions, a mere 35, or fewer, hours a week, with six weeks paid vacation time and an additional two weeks of holidays and unlimited sick days, compared to the 70+ hour work week, with limited time off, for most attorneys in private practice.

The part-time nature of judicial employment is clearly evident from the amount of time our judges had on their hands to place volumes of materials related to their personal lawsuit on the Court’s website! Given the fact that Judicial “Intervention” our courts have tremendous backlogs, why are the judges wasting precious court time advertising their lawsuit on taxpayer-funded websites?

The “Judicial Compensation Lawsuit” banner is more than just a notice. It denotes a link to an entire section of the Court’s website dedicated to the judges’ court lings on this matter. The judges kindly provide a scanned copy of their full, 112-page court motion led in July against the State Legislature; not counting the numerous copies needed for each judge and legislator. How many trees were slaughtered for this ling alone?
And, what did it cost the taxpayers?

The judges also provide scanned copies of all 54 pages of the additional lawsuit led by the head of the court system, Judge Judith Kaye. The judges even go so far as to provide copies of four letters they signed related to this issue – another 22 pages worth. No one ever accused the legal mind of being brief; pun intended!

The Courts have spent taxpayers’ funds to file duplicate court motions and lawsuits on this matter. They then spent even more taxpayer funds to set up this section of the Court website and to scan and link all 188 pages onto the taxpayers’ website to publicize their demands at taxpayers’ expense.

Nowhere on this site do the judges reveal the cost to the New York State taxpayers for their personal use of this website. If indeed the judges felt the need to “get the word out” on this issue, why didn’t each judge personally chip in a portion of their current $136,700+ base starting salaries to fund what amounts to nothing more than a onesided campaign smear job?

If the job of the courts is to provide equal access and fair representation to all, then why haven’t the judges provided the legislative response to their lawsuits for the taxpayers’ benefit? Whose benefit does such a one-sided posting really serve here? Why was this skewed posting
done at taxpayers’ expense in defi-ance of the budgetary, contractual, and legislative rules prohibiting the use of taxpayers’ systems for personal benefit?

No one but the judges will benefit from an increase in judicial salaries. Therefore, no one but the judges should bear the burden of the expenses incurred in seeking those increases. And it should not be too much for the taxpayers of New York State to expect our judges to obey the laws that they enforce in the courts; and, to provide us with both sides of the issue, or none at all.

This abuse of New York State taxpayers’ systems becomes even more incredulous when the Judicial Compensation Lawsuit section of the website is compared to the information provided to litigants who must navigate the murky waters of our “justice system” alone, Pro Se litigants. The website for our local Westchester Courts does not provide any information whatsoever for Pro Bono help. The Westchester court site does provide a direct line for criminals to contact the court, 914-995-4323, but no such information is available for law-abiding citizens of our county.

Contrast that to the assistance provided to litigants in other counties: the Syracuse Courts provide a full address, email contact, direct phone number, a toll free number, and both a local and 800 number for TTY lines for speech and hearing-impaired litigants. If Syracuse courts and the surrounding counties upstate can provide full contact information to Pro Se and handicapped litigants, why can’t Westchester? Why isn’t Judge Nicolai, the Administrative Judge of the Ninth Judicial District, providing our residents with at least equal treatment?

The only assistance Westchester Courts will provide a frightened taxpayer facing a legal maze alone is given by their clerk’s office. But that advice is extremely limited. According to the New York State court website: You can find help at the Clerk’s Of-fice at any courthouse.

BUT... Workers in the Clerk’s Office can’t take sides or give legal advice. They can:

• Explain court rules and procedures;

• Explain available options for your case or problem;

• Provide past case rulings;

• Provide cites to, or copies of, the law;

• Explain public court operations and jobs;

• Describe court records and their availability;

• Provide public case information;

• Tell you how to make a complaint;

• Refer you to other offices or persons;

• Provide forms with instructions. But they can’t:

• Suggest the procedures you should follow;

• Provide opinions about which option to choose;

• Predict what the court will do;

• Analyze the law based on the specifics of your case;

• Provide information derived from the decision-making process;

• Provide access to sealed or confi-dential case records;

• Provide confidential case information;

• Give opinions about your complaint;

• Make referrals based on personal preference;

• Provide or suggest the information to enter on forms.

Compare that to the Judicial section on their salary lawsuit which provides full details of the lawsuits and all letters and communications. A law-abiding litigant cannot be shown how to fill out the plethora of convoluted court forms and must struggle on unassisted, but the judges have been provided, at taxpayer expense, with complete scanned copies of the fully-drafted court motions filed by the court administration to ‘cut and paste’ into their own personal lawsuits.

Such preferential treatment is not limited to judges in our courts. Attorneys receive personal benefits at taxpayers’ expense. This reporter made a trip to Surrogate’s Court in White Plains last week and uncovered blatant evidence of the discrimination between attorneys and litigants in our Westchester Courts. Posted on the door of the Surrogate’s Court, for Judge Anthony Scarpino, was a notice inviting the attorneys who practice before the Judge to a free Continuing Education seminar hosted by Scarpino personally. In short, a ‘meet and greet’ to schmooze with the Judge, at taxpayers’ expense.

Attorneys practicing in New York State must complete 24 hours of continuing education every two years. A typical two-credit course offered by Pace Law School in White Plains costs $87.50 for an online course, other offerings are as little as $20 per credit. And unlike other professions who must pay exorbitant prices for their continuing education, many local bar associations, agencies, and law firms offer CLE courses for free. So why are our Westchester Courts offering free CLE credits to attorneys who can obtain similar information, at little cost elsewhere? Since attorneys may not practice in New York State if they do not complete their required CLE training, obtaining this training is essential for them to be able to earn a living.

So why are our courts providing what amounts to a personal benefit to local attorneys at taxpayer expense? Why are tax dollars and court time being used for a seminar that is clearly nothing more than a thinly-disguised opportunity for the Court to schmooze with the attorneys who finance judicial campaigns, and for the attorneys to schmooze in turn with the Judge who decides their cases, an opportunity denied
Pro Se litigants; and therefore, possibly, a violation of ‘equal access’ laws?

Given the backlog of cases in Surrogates’ Court, why is Judge Scarpino dedicating his time, his court, and his staff to this endeavor? What is the cost of his staff’s time to develop, advertise, and host this ‘seminar’; the cost of court computers and copies for the materials needed, the cost of the paper and ink used, the cost for the courthouse and security staff for this event, and the facilities cost for lighting and heating?

Given our budget deficit, why are we taxpayers paying a dime for an event that clearly is not ‘free’ at all, at least not to us? Why are we expected to subsidize overpaid attorneys with our tax dollars for their personal training? And, where can the rest of us sign up to get equal
face time with our local judges? With refreshments! (Judge, I like my coffee with skim milk and one Splenda).

The CLE flyer which was posted in plain sight on the door of the courtroom boasts that it is not only being offered ‘free of charge’ but that the attorneys can also look forward to ‘free refreshments’. The CLE flyer also clearly notes the name of the court staff member assigned
to assist them with this event, Joe Accetta, and his full contact information including his address, fax number, and direct line (914-824-5655).

Contrast that with a flyer posted in an obscure hallway on the Surrogate’s floor for Pro Bono help. This reporter has contacted Judge Frank Nicolai, the Administrative Judge of the Westchester Courts, on several occasions about the lack of Pro Bono assistance available. On

one occasion, this reporter contacted Judge Nicolai to inform him that the Pro Bono phone number provided nothing more to litigants than a recording which said “This number is out of service!” On every occasion, Judge Nicolai refused to address this reporter’s concerns.

Yet on Monday, August 4, while I sat at the end of a hallway, around the corner from Surrogate’s Court and out of the line of sight of both the courtroom and the lobby, I observed Judge Scarpino’s secretary, Janet Siciliano, post a flyer for ‘Pro Bono NY’ on a door facing me, and only on that door. She walked out of her office next to Judge Scarpino’s chambers, dramatically posted the Pro Bono lawyer immediately
in my line of sight, and just as immediately returned to her office.

Why were several flyers for freebies for attorneys posted in the lobby where they could be easily seen, yet only one solitary flyer for Pro Se litigants was posted, and that flyer was displayed in an area where few litigants would dare to tread? And why was that flyer only posted there (and nowhere else) only after I was seen and acknowledged by court employees?

Was that for my benefit? To prove that the court really does provide Pro Bono help? If so, the court failed to convince me. The Pro Bono ‘notice’ was a pathetic attempt at providing information, especially when contrasted with the flyers distributed for the attorneys. Local attorneys who charge between $300 and $450 an hour, thereby earning revenues between $600,000 and $900,000 a year, are provided with free training and free refreshments and complete contact info, yet local taxpayers who cannot afford an attorney and who may be struggling
on $40,000 a year, a fraction of the over-priced attorneys’ earnings, are not even entitled to get a phone number of whom to call for help? Is this a joke? If so, the joke is on us, the taxpayers; for the discrimination practiced by our courts goes even deeper.

I attended Judge Scarpino’s court on August 4th out of curiosity. Judge Scarpino is the Surrogate Judge for Westchester County. Surrogates, as it is commonly called, is a specialized court that handles only cases concerning the distribution of a deceased person’s estate. Surrogate courts hand out judicial appointments to greedy attorneys like candy since the litigants involved, i.e. the dead people, can’t complain.

Anyone familiar with Charles Dickens’ “Bleak House” can readily see the comparisons in Westchester County Surrogate Court’s handling of the Carvel estate. By the time the attorneys are through fighting, there will be nothing left for any family member or charity to inherit. Yet, in addition to his plethora of opportunities for political appointments within Surrogates, Judge Scarpino has also been appointed head of the Matrimonial Courts in Westchester County.

It was a matrimonial case that drew me to his Court. I was curious when I saw that Judge Scarpino was personally handling the divorce of the head of security for Westchester Community College, a divorce case, Allison v Allison, previously handled by disgraced Matrimonial Court
referee James Montagnino.

As Guardian readers’ will recall, the Allison case has a long history. The divorce decree was rendered by disgraced referee James Montagnino whose appointment to this particular case remains the focus of investigative attention since there was never any record of his appointment!

The Appellate Courts have already noted that they found no order appointing Montagnino, in violation of New York State Court Procedures. So, if the referee’s appointment is non-existent, how can any order that referee issued be valid since he had no legal authority to issue the orders to begin with? Upon further investigation, former referee Montagnino resigned under suspicious circumstances
and now resides in Saratoga Springs where he can do no further damage to hard-working Westchester families. In 2007, the New York Post reported that Montagnino gave the following warning in a CLE seminar he was hosting for attorneys at Pace Law School: ‘Beware of the 10583 Syndrome,’ a reference to posh Scarsdale’s ZIP code.

“The 10583 mentality...says that ‘I’m entitled and I ought to be able to get the house, I ought to be able to get support... I ought to be able to live with my son’s drum instructor happily ever after and it all should be on his dime.’”

Such remarks are clear evidence of the influence judges and court referees can have on local attorneys and why such individuals should not be conducting thinly disguised CLE seminars for local attorneys that are nothing more than vehicles for them to influence those attorneys to their way of thinking.

Yet despite the past horrors suffered by Montagnino’s victims, his cases are now being resurrected in Surrogates’ Court by a Judge who is following in Montagnino’s footsteps in more ways than one. One wonders what “advice” Judge Scarpino will be offering local attorneys at his ‘meet and greet’ CLE seminar on September 17.

Will it be more of the ‘Beware the 10583 syndrome’ variety? The mere presence of this reporter in his courtroom apparently made Judge Scarpino nervous since he took the unusual step of asking, on the record, who was in the courtroom?

Nervous judges or not, The Guardian will continue to monitor the behavior of our local courts and their preferential treatment of attorneys and discriminatory treatment of litigants. We will continue to keep an eye on Surrogates and other Courts and the Allison case in particular.

Illegal orders from disgraced court referees should not be resurrected to induce further harm upon innocent victims. And our local judges and courts may not use their positions as an opportunity to intervene with local attorneys and personal issues or to interject their personal agendas.

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