For 28 years, Glen George has served as Town Justice for Middletown, a small town in upstate New York. It is an elected position and doesn’t require law degree — George was a state trooper for two decades before taking the bench. He was set to retire from public service this month.
But he will leave his seat a few weeks sooner than planned and ignominiously. This week the state’s highest court affirmed a decision by the State Commission on Judicial Conduct to remove George from office for misconduct involving incidents where he appeared to show favor to his friends in court.
“We are mindful of the fact that petitioner has served his community for nearly three decades,” the New York State Court of Appeal’s six judge majority wrote in their opinion, filed Tuesday. “Nonetheless … the two independent charges involve serious misconduct relating directly to petitioner’s fulfillment of his judicial duties.”
In the first charge, from 2009, George dismissed a seat-belt violation citation for Lynn Johnson, a small business owner for whom George had worked on and off since 1982.
“[George] and Johnson had known each other since childhood, having attended school together, and had a social as well as employer-employee relationship that spanned several decades,” the court stated. Johnson’s appearance in court, in fact, came one day after George “retired from the most recent of his two stints of employment with the Johnson family company.”
Johnson noted in court that the citation listed the model year of his red Mercedes Benz as 2000, even though, as car’s title showed, its model year was 1976. George ruled that the mistake was enough grounds to invalidate the ticket. Neither the state trooper who wrote the citation nor the prosecutor were present in court to challenge the ruling. The assistant district attorney in charge of the case later said that the judge’s decision to dismiss the case without him there was “out of the ordinary.”
George argued to the court that Johnson’s traffic violation was a “minor” matter. But the court countered that “although the charge against Johnson was relatively minor,
[George’s] decision to hear a case involving a friend and former employer without even disclosing the existence of the personal relationship to the District Attorney was, under the circumstances presented here, no small matter.”
The court noted that the instance was not isolated. Nine years earlier, the Commission on Judicial Conduct had issued a letter to George cautioning him about “his decision to preside over four cases involving Johnson’s then daughter-in-law,” who had been charged with driving while intoxicated.
His behavior in Johnson’s citation case, the court ruled, violated the state’s Rules
Governing Judicial Conduct, which states that a “judge shall disqualify himself or herself in a proceeding in which the judge’s impartiality might reasonably be questioned.”
The second strike against George came in February 2010, when a Long Island man who owned a summer property in Middletown came to George’s court to pursue legal action against a neighbor “wrongfully diverting water onto his property.”
The high court explained what happened next:
Having overheard the allegations, [George] injected himself into the conversation, expressing the view that the neighbor was the “senior property holder” and was therefore permitted to divert water onto the litigant’s property, further speculating that the deeds relating to the adjoining properties likely permitted such activity. Discouraged, the litigant did not complete the process for initiation of a claim at that time.
Turned out the neighbor was “a long-time resident of the town” whom George “had known for decades” and with whom George “was friendly.”
The Long Island man made two more attempts to fight the neighbor in court, and both times George discouraged him, citing that the neighbor was in the right because he had owned his property longer.
“[George’s] comments temporarily resulted in the litigant abandoning the claim,” the majority stated. “Although the litigant came to the courthouse seeking adjudication of a dispute by a neutral and unbiased magistrate, petitioner responded by advocating the position of the prospective opponent.”
In this case, the majority continued, George violated the judicial rule stating that a “judge shall not initiate, permit, or consider ex parte communications, or consider other communications made to the judge outside the presence of the parties or their lawyers concerning a pending or impending proceeding.”
Judge Eugene Pigott was the sole dissenter, arguing that removal is too harsh a punishment for George’s indiscretions, that the court should instead “impose the sanction of admonition.”
“My strongest disagreement with the majority is that it gives no serious consideration to the question whether a lesser sanction than removal is appropriate,” he wrote.
He argued that George’s actions constituted lack of judgment and were “inappropriate,” but not much more — there was no cover-up or egregious misreading of law. “In a town of approximately 3,800 people, it is inevitable that the Town Justice would be familiar to all of its citizens and an integral part of the community,” Pigott noted.
“Following 20 years of distinguished service as a New York State trooper and now 28 years as a town justice (48 years of public service in all), and after having been repeatedly reelected by the citizens of Middletown,” Pigott concluded, “Judge George will be removed from the bench, in the very month in which he was to retire, because of a churlish and overreaching decision of the Judicial Conduct Commission, which, regrettably, the Court endorses.”