A Cup of Joe | Should A Part-Time Judge Be Removed from the Bench for Using Foul Language?

This week we head out east to Northport Village, Suffolk County, on Long Island.  It is about a 1 ½-hour drive from 3rd Avenue in Manhattan, and about a 5-hour drive from Syracuse.

Northport is a pretty maritime village that sits on the L.I. Sound. In July 1984, Northport received a lot of attention for being the site of the gruesome murder of a 17-year-old boy by his friend, devil-worshiper Ricky Kasso. The event caused the village to suffer a reputation for satanism. Also, Northport is renowned as being the home of occult metal band, Blue Oyster Cult (“Don’t Fear the Reaper”). On October 23, you can attend the Witches & Warlocks Night out on Main Street, between 4pm and 9pm; and, on October 27, they have the Halloween Hayride at the Village Park from 12:00 to 4:00 pm.

But this week’s case has nothing to do with murder or music or Halloween – it is about a village judge who faces charges of misconduct for having a horrifically-graphic mouth.

ENTER: Paul H. Senzer, a part-time Justice of the Northport Village Court and lawyer in private practice; Jennifer Coleman, one of Judge Paul’s clients.

BACKDROP: Jennifer had hired Judge Paul to represent her and her husband against their daughter for visitation of their grandchild. The case was resolved and Jennifer requested a refund of the fees paid to Judge Paul. The requests were ignored.  A few months later, after reading a news article about a lawsuit filed against Judge Paul, she contacted the lawyer in that matter, Christopher Cassar, and gave him copies of Judge Paul’s emails. Outraged, Attorney Cassar filed a complaint with the Commission on Judicial Conduct. The judge was charged with misconduct and a hearing was held.

TESTIMONY OF JENNIFER COLEMAN

Q: How long has Judge Paul been your attorney?

A: About 30 years.

Q: You knew him before he was your attorney?

A: Yes. I was his house cleaner for several years and occasionally provided cat-sitting services.

Q: You baby-sat his cat?

A: Mmm-hmm.

Q: And Judge Paul represented you in a court action in Family Court?

A: Yes. It was against my daughter for visitation of my grandchild. It resolved and then I asked Judge Paul for a refund. But he never responded. I never got my money back.

Q: What did you do then?

A: Nothing. A few months after, I read that someone was suing Judge Paul, so I contacted their attorney and gave him some nasty emails that Judge Paul sent to me.

Q: Why did you do that?

A: I thought he could use them in the law suit.

Q: What did the emails say?

A: Judge Paul referred to my daughter several times as a “b*tch”;  one stated that our daughter’s lawyer is a c*nt on wheels. Sorry for the profanity. In another email, Judge Paul referred to the the other lawyer as “eyelashes.”  He warned us to contact our grandchild’s school,  and wrote,  “You should know by now that people who work in schools are assholes”.

Q: What else?

A: Talking about a court appearance, he wrote, “We will appear entirely calm and reasonable…let your daughter act like the asshole she is”.

Q: Anything else?

A: Oh, yeah, in the subject line of one email, in reference to my daughter and her former husband, “THE TWO SCUMBAGS WERE SERVED”.  He also wrote, you know, talking about the Family Court referee, “You may have noticed that the ‘judge’ is an asshole. An ‘asshole’ can issue a warrant for your arrest.”

TESTIMONY OF JUDGE PAUL

Q: Sir, how are you employed?

A: I have been the Justice of the Northport Village Court, Suffolk County, since 1994. Since 2013, I also served as a hearing officer for the Suffolk County Traffic and Parking Violations Agency. I was admitted to the practice of law in New York in 1981.

Q: You are a judge and a lawyer?

A: Yes. As a part-time judge, I am permitted to practice law. I have a private law practice.

Q: Did you represent Jennifer Coleman?

A: I represented Jennifer Coleman in two matters from 2013 to 2015. I represented her in an employment discrimination matter based on her claim against a school district where she had been a part-time custodian.

Q: What happened there?

A: Ms. Coleman’s claim was dismissed.

Q: And then?

A: Jennifer and her husband Walter, a maintenance mechanic, retained me to represent them in a Family Court matter against their daughter in which they were seeking visitation rights to their grandchild.

Q: Did you send emails to Jennifer?

A: I sent nine emails.

Q: Did the emails contain profanities?

A: The words I used and the language in the emails were atrocious and reflect very poorly on me as an attorney and obviously, as a judge.

Q:  Why would you use such language, being a judge and a lawyer?

A: It did not occur to me at the time that sending the emails had any connection with me being a judge. I learned the hard way that it certainly does. In the course of exchanging many emails with clients who were longtime acquaintances, I became far too conversational and far too familiar.  Using such vulgar language was a misguided effort to empathize with and be supportive of’ my clients since Ms. Coleman had used similar language to describe her daughter and others.

Q: You believed it was okay because the client used the same language?

A: I suspect that what I was doing was pandering or patronizing her in trying to bring myself down to that level, although that is not an excuse.  The obscene reference to Jen’s daughter’s lawyer, was as an attempt to convey to Jen that she was up against a very aggressive adversary who could be counted upon to be zealous.

Q: You believe that in some instances, vulgar language being used by a judge is okay?

A: It was an inexcusable sexual slur. Using the term showed insensitivity to Jennifer particularly since in the employment matter in which I represented her, Jen’s supervisor had used the epithet towards Jen and other women. I recognize that it is inappropriate for an attorney to use any language that denigrates the legal profession, and I’m sorry to say, I fell down.

 

CLOSING ARGUMENT FOR JUDGE PAUL:

Judge Paul’s language in emails with clients does not rise to the level of misconduct since the communications were private and unrelated to his role as a judge. Therefore, the charges of misconduct must be DISMISSED.

 

DETERMINATION OF THE COMMISSION:

Judges are accountable at all times for their conduct-including their conversation-both on and off the Bench.

The impropriety of such language requires little discussion. Criticism of individuals involved in his clients’ case is not the issue here, nor is the use of profanity in communicating with his clients.  However, as the Court of Appeals has held, using crude language that reflects bias or otherwise diminishes respect for our system of justice, even off the bench, is inconsistent with a judge’s ethical obligations.

Every judge must be mindful of the duty to avoid any conduct or statements, even off the bench, that undermine public confidence in the judiciary or respect for our system of justice as a whole and judges are held to standards of conduct on a plane much higher than those for others.

Judge Paul was removed from the Bench.

Happy Halloween.


Here is the case: http://www.scjc.state.ny.us/Determinations/S/Senzer.Paul.H.2019.10.09.DET.pdf

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