Thursday, November 29, 2007

Cell phone goes off -- then New York judge goes off, too

This is Robert Restaino, until recently a judge in upstate New York. The above photo, by Dan Cappellazzo, first appeared in the Niagara Gazette on a happier occasion in Restaino's life, when he was elected a Niagara Falls city judge.

Restaino's lost that job, at least for now, because of a March 2005 incident in his courtroom. There was a sign in the courtroom cautioning all present to turn off their cell phones. According to the AP story that ran in the November 28 issue of the Chicago Daily Law Bulletin, "Restaino was hearing the cases of domestic violence offenders who had been ordered to appear weekly to update the judge on the progress of their counseling" when, despite the cautionary sign, someone's cell phone went off.

That set the judge off. And when no one produced the offending phone, Restaino announced, "Everyone is going to jail.... Every single person is going to jail in this courtroom unless I get that instrument now. If anybody believes I'm kidding, ask some of the folks that have been here for a while. You are all going."

And then, according to the story, they all did go to jail -- all 46 people in the room. Fourteen of those, those that couldn't make bail, "were shackled and bused to another jail." Restaino ordered them all released that afternoon -- but it was too late to save his job. The AP reported that Raoul Felder, chairman of the state Commission on Judicial Conduct, wrote (in an opinion issued November 13 and just made public Tuesday afternoon) that Restaino "'snapped' and 'engaged in what can only be described as two hours of inexplicable madness.'"

The story's already been picked up around the world. (See, for example, these articles in the Times of India or the Guardian.) The tone of coverage has been uniformly critical.

But Restaino has received a more sympathetic press in his own hometown. Mark Scheer's news story in the Niagara Gazette, said the court commission was "was unrelenting in its criticism." The article quoted Restaino's lawyer extensively, stressing the lawyer's hope that the New York Court of Appeals (to which an appeal of the court commission's decision will be made) "will measure those few hours against a decade of [Restaino's] exemplary conduct on the bench and years of extraordinary service to the Niagara Falls community."

The Gazette also ran a column by Ken Hamilton. Hamilton lamented that the court commission couldn't see "what our Judge Bobby did, day in and day out." Hamilton said the commission needed to "understand how frustrating it is to see the same groups of people, over and over and over again."

Besides, Hamilton wrote, "There have been very few community-based boards or trusteeships to which the judge has not given his quality time in helping to improve the lives of those who too often parade themselves in front of him. He has poured his heart and soul into this little dysfunctional community that we call home and he has loved it as though he gave birth to it. He has given and given and given and given and all that he has ever asked for in return was a little respect. Apparently, when the respect gave out just one time too often, so did his patience and judicial temperament and for one moment in time, his human side exposed itself."

In another case, one might call that a ringing endorsement of Judge Restaino's character. That would probably not be a felicitous choice of words in this case, however.

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