Bill calls for requiring judges to give reason for recusal

Jesse Coburn for Newsday

January 07, 2020

Originally published in Newsday on January 07, 2020.

Sen. Todd Kaminsky is introducing state legislation Wednesday that would require judges to provide a reason when they recuse themselves from cases, citing a spate of unexplained recusals from litigation involving the Town of Hempstead.

Kaminsky said he is proposing the legislation in response to the legal fight between Hempstead and Double Eagle Golf, the former operator of a town-owned golf course in Lido Beach. Three state Supreme Court judges in Nassau County recused themselves from the case in rapid succession late last year without explanation. Kaminsky said such instances could diminish public confidence in the judicial process.

"When you leave the public to speculate why a given judge might not want to handle a given case … I don't think it's helpful," said Kaminsky, a Democrat whose district includes the golf course. "Especially with a case having such a political back story."

Double Eagle operated the Lido Beach Golf Course from 1997 to 2017, when its contract expired and the town retook control of the facility. The company sued Hempstead in May 2017, arguing the town owed it $776,400 for capital improvements it carried out following superstorm Sandy in 2012. The town countersued, saying the company was contractually obligated to cover such costs, but the company had let the facility deteriorate.

The company and town reached an $85,000 settlement in April 2019. In October, however, Hempstead's former supervisor, Laura Gillen, a Democrat, expressed concern about the settlement in an affidavit, noting Double Eagle had paid a company controlled by Nassau County GOP chairman Joseph Cairo $922,800 from 1999 to 2014 for work related to the course.

Cairo was not the chairman at the time. He ascended to that post in May 2018 after serving more than a decade as vice chairman. A former Hempstead councilman, he previously told Newsday he consulted Double Eagle on "business decisions and transactions."

"Nothing unethical was done," he said. "I represented them at a time when I had no relationship with the town."

The three judges then recused themselves from the case in as many weeks: Timothy Driscoll on Oct. 29, Vito DeStefano on Nov. 15 and Jerome Murphy on Nov. 19. None provided a reason. An administrative judge then transferred the case to a judge in Westchester County.

The Hempstead Town Board unanimously voted down the settlement in November.

Kaminsky's bill would require judges to offer a written or on-the-record reason when they recuse themselves. They are not currently required to do so, a court spokesman said.

The bill would make an exception when the explanation "will result in embarrassment" or is "of a compelling personal nature."

The Double Eagle case "really evidenced a lack of transparency with our judicial system," Kaminsky said. "Having that extra transparency will help undergird the credibility of our judicial system."