A veteran Southampton Town justice has been censured by the New York State Commission on Judicial Conduct, which said he acted inappropriately for a sitting judge.
According to the censure document, issued on Wednesday, May 28, the commission found that Town Justice Edward D. Burke Sr. committed four acts of misconduct. They include riding in a police car with a defendant after arraigning him on a charge of DWI, and recommending that the defendant hire an attorney who was his business partner, using his judicial title to promote his law firm, imposing fines that exceed the maximum authorized by law, and making improper political contributions.
Calls to Judge Burke’s office were referred to his attorney, Paul Shechtman of New York-based firm Zuckerman Spaeder LLP, who did not return several calls seeking comment over the past week.
A censure is the most severe form of written punishment that the commission can authorize against a practicing judge.
There were several hearings held before the commission before the censure document was released. As a result of those proceedings, the commission’s administrator, Robert H. Tembeckjian, recommended that Judge Burke be removed from his position—a motion the commission rejected.
Judge Burke has been a Southampton Town justice since 2008, and had previously served in the same position from 1994 through July 2000. His current term expires on December 31, 2015. From 2000 to 2007, he was a judge of the Court of Claims and an Acting State Supreme Court Justice.
The first charge of riding in a police car with a defendant and recommending legal counsel in business with Judge Burke stems from an incident on March 14, 2009, when the defendant, Michael Matus, was charged with DWI while driving in Sag Harbor. At the time of arraignment, Judge Burke suspended Mr. Matus’s driver’s license and released him on his own recognizance, and told him he could apply for a hardship driver’s license. After arraignment, the defendant asked police for a ride to his home in Sag Harbor, and Judge Burke accompanied him in the car, sitting in the front seat.
According to the censure, during the car ride, Judge Burke told Mr. Matus he could no longer hear his case because he rode in the police car with him, and, after learning he did not have an attorney, recommended Tina Piette, with whom he was co-owner of two real estate investment properties at the time. On March 17, Judge Burke was scheduled to sit on the bench during Mr. Matus’s hearing for a hardship driver’s license, opted not to recuse himself and, thinking it was only administrative work, issued the hardship license.
The second charge, of using his judicial title to promote his law firm and business, stems from the following paragraph written on the website for his law firm, Burke and Sullivan, PLLC. “The Hon. Edward D. Burke, Sr., is an outstanding and respected jurist, serving as a Southampton Town Justice (1994-2000 and 2008 to present) having been elected in 1993, 1995, 1999, and 2007. In August of 2000, he was appointed as New York State Court of Claims Judge and assigned to the Supreme Court Bench in Riverhead, where he earned the respect and trust of his colleagues and the public through his fair and wise administration of justice.”
According to Judge Burke, he did not control the company website, and was not aware the excerpt appeared on the site, though he admitted he did not tell his law office the limitations on using his position as a justice to promote his own private practice.
Charge three of imposing fines exceeding the maximum authorized by law refers to more than 200 occasions between late 2008 and January 2011 where he imposed fines higher than allowed, most often $200 instead of $150, in cases involving defendants who pleaded guilty to vehicle and traffic law violations.
According to documents, the chief Southampton Town Court clerk learned that the maximum fine for a vehicle traffic law violation was $150, and she notified all the town justices of the same. Despite knowing the amount, Judge Burke continued issuing higher fines until January 2011, according to the document. It goes on to state that Judge Burke thought the amount was permissible because the district attorney’s office had recommended a similar amount.
The final charge, of making improper political donations, was a response to several checks written by the law firm Burke & Sullivan from May 2008 through June 2010, some of which were signed by Judge Burke himself. The checks were payments to attend politically sponsored events and golf outings. The contributions, according to documents, were not made when Justice Burke was running for office, and they were outside the window period for judicial candidates.
“The record before us demonstrates that respondent engaged in behavior, both on and off the bench, that was inconsistent with well-established ethical standards prohibiting judges from lending the prestige of judicial office to advance private interests and requiring every judge, inter alia, to maintain professional competence in the law and to avoid even the appearance of impropriety,” the decision reads. “Respondent’s misconduct, which is essentially undisputed, showed poor judgment in several respects and insensitivity to his ethical obligations.”