Since a judge convicted Astacio of driving while intoxicated in August 2016 and sentenced her to a conditional discharge of a year:
- Her sentence was extended to February 2018 after she pleaded guilty in November 2016 to violating two of her conditions — abstaining from alcohol and not driving under the influence.
- An arrest warrant was issued for her on May 30 after she failed to appear for a court hearing (she was reportedly in Thailand).
- A declaration of delinquency was also filed against Astacio for neglecting to submit to a urine test previously requested.
We stopped short of calling for her to be removed from the bench, however. We sincerely hoped she would seek help for what could be alcohol use disorder and return to the bench as an inspiration for others. In her short time on the bench, she earned a reputation as a judge who is more interested in rehabilitating defendants than punishing them. She is respected and appreciated by communities that believe the judicial system treats people of color too harshly.
But that has not happened and now, she is the subject of derision. Cries for Astacio to be removed — a decision that would mean she could never serve in New York as a judge again — grow louder. Questions abound about why she continues to collect a salary and why she can't simply be fired.
Yes, a judge who flouts the law seriously jeopardizes the confidence of the public in the legal system. But this case is an example of a bigger problem that must be addressed: the need for more transparency about disciplinary proceedings and more options to discipline a judge.
Since the late 1970s, the state Commission on Judicial Conduct has advocated for an expansion of authority of the Court of Appeals to suspend a judge with or without pay and for the ability of the commission to make its investigations public after a decision to formally charge a judge with misconduct.
The state Legislature should make this longtime request a reality by working with the commission to create smart legislation and voting for a change in the law.
In 35 states, formal disciplinary proceedings against a judge become public at the point the judge is served with charges, In New York, the entire process is confidential unless a judge waives confidentiality. New York must become more transparent.
The Court of Appeals must also be given expanded authority to suspend a judge without pay as an intermediate measure. It cannot do so right now. Currently, the Court of Appeals can suspend a jurist only if the judge is charged with a felony or with a misdemeanor that involves moral turpitude, or if the commission has filed a determination that the judge should be removed from office.
Only two of 27 judges disciplined for excessive use of alcohol have been successfully removed by the commission over the past 40 years. Both were drunk while presiding in court.
The removal of a judge from the bench should not be taken lightly. But it shouldn't be this difficult, either. Justice demands a better approach.
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Editorial: Astacio case shows need to reform how New York disciplines judges