Hempstead case sparks new state law over judge recusals

John Asbury for Newsday

Originally published in Newsday

A state bill is awaiting Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s signature that would require judges to give a reason for recusing themselves from hearing cases.

The bill introduced by Sen. Todd Kaminsky (D-Long Beach) stemmed from a case filed by Double Eagle Golf against the Town of Hempstead, in which three Nassau County Supreme Court judges recused themselves from hearing the case without explanation.

“I think people’s confidence in the judicial system is undermined when there may be an appearance that the judge who is taking their case is not decided on merit but something else,” Kaminsky said. “Everyone wants to know a given judge is neutral and the reason they do or [don't] take a case is a purely independent and random selection process.”

The new law, which passed the state Senate and Assembly last month, requires any judge who decides not to hear a case to state a reason for not presiding over the matter as long as it may not result in an embarrassing or personal nature.

The case filed in 2017 argued the town owed $776,400 to the former golf club operators Double Eagle for capital improvement after superstorm Sandy. Double Eagle operated the Lido Beach golf course until the town seized operations once their contract expired. Town officials countersued, arguing that they seized control after the former operators let the course fall into disrepair.

Nassau County Justices Timothy Driscoll, Vito DeStefano and Jerome Murphy recused themselves from hearing the case last fall. The case was ultimately transferred to a Westchester County judge, who presided over the start of the trial until a settlement was reached in November.

The town board rejected the $85,000 settlement, sending the case back to trial next year.

Former Democratic Supervisor Laura Gillen joined the board in unanimously blocking the settlement, arguing Nassau County Republican Chairman Joseph Cairo had a financial stake in Double Eagle, when he was paid $922,800 in consulting fees from 1999 to 2014 while serving as the party’s vice chairman.

Hempstead spokesman Greg Blower said the town attorney's office has not reviewed the legislation yet, but said, "the Town of Hempstead supports legislation that enhances judicial responsibility."

Joshua Hecht, an attorney representing Double Eagle, said the town has repeatedly engaged in litigation to support patronage politics, but he did not want to speculate why the judges recused themselves.

“The fact is all these judges recused themselves in a highly political case,” he said. “We would all welcome clarity and I don’t want to speak to a judge’s motives.”