by Andrew Denney
from the New York Law Review
Longtime Brooklyn Supreme Court Justice Yvonne Lewis has agreed to resign, effective Dec. 31, ending an investigation by the state Commission on Judicial Conduct.
According to a stipulation released Thursday, the commission first investigated Lewis’ conduct in May 2013 after the Law Journal and other media revealed that the Office of Court Administration’s inspector general was looking into allegations that Lewis had signed payment forms for Kimberly Detherage, her law clerk, who had been assigned to handle guardianship cases for other judges ( NYLJ, March 12, 2013).
In December 2014, the commission launched a second investigation after receiving a report from the inspector general alleging that Lewis failed to adequately supervise Detherage in her guardianship work, that she approved a guardianship payment to Detherage after hiring her as a full-time law clerk and that she improperly continued to preside over three of Detherage’s guardianship cases.
According to New York Codes, Rules and Regulations 22 NYCRR 50.6, lawyers employed full time with the court system may not engage in private practice unless they are working pro bono in matters that are not in the courts of their employ or if they have obtained permission from the chief administrative judge to work on matters that are not pending before a court or government agency, uncontested matters in Surrogate’s Court, uncontested accountings in Supreme Court and ex parte applications that are not related to contested matters.
Detherage was admitted to practice in New York in 1986 and has no record of public discipline, according to the OCA website.
The stipulation states that Lewis denied certain aspects of the complaint and offered explanations for other aspects. The commission did not elaborate, but said it had not evaluated the judge’s statements or made any “substantive” determinations concerning them ( See Commission’s Decision and Order).
“There has been no finding by the commission that the judge engaged in any wrongdoing,” said Robert Tembeckjian, the commission’s administrator. The agreement to step down will not affect Lewis’ retirement pay, he said.
Lewis was elected to the Brooklyn Civil Court in 1987. In 1991, she was elected as a Brooklyn Supreme Court justice and was re-elected in 2005.
Upon reaching the mandatory retirement age of 70 in 2014, she was certificated to serve an additional two years. She would have been eligible for two additional certifications, which would have allowed her to stay on the bench through 2020.
The commission’s stipulation states that, following her retirement, Lewis, who obtained her law degree from the University at Buffalo Law School and has been licensed to practice since 1974, will not seek appointment or election to judicial office.
Lewis did not return a message left at her chambers seeking comment. She was represented by Deborah Scalise, a partner at Scalise Hamilton & Sheridan in Scarsdale.
In a release, Scalise said that Lewis’ decision to step down was in accordance with retirement plans she had laid out two years ago and not as a consequence of the pending charges. She decided to stay on the bench because she was elected president of the National Consortium of Racial and Ethnic Fairness in the Courts and will continue to be involved with the organization after she steps down, Scalise said.
Scalise also said Lewis fully cooperated with the investigation and that the judge was “confident” the charges against her would have been dismissed if the commission were to continue its investigation.
“She agreed to end this process with the understanding that the stipulation is not an admission or concession of guilt and, in fact, includes the statement that there is no finding of wrongdoing,” Scalise said in the release. “She also wished to avoid the expense and inconvenience of protracted litigation.”
Brenda Correa represented the commission.
“Both the disciplinary system and the judge are spared a lengthy disciplinary proceeding that, in my view, would have likely resulted in discipline,” Tembeckjian said of the outcome of the case.