The court system is premised on the notion that judges will display, you know, judgment, and that they will not act like total nutcases.
As any lawyer will tell you, this premise is on occasion unfounded.
Case in point — the strange episode of Judge Robert M. Restaino, a judge of the Niagra falls City Court.
Now, all judges hate it when cell phones ring in court. If you forget to turn off your phone, and it rings, you ought to expect to get yelled at if you are lucky and sanctioned if you are not.
You should not, however, expect to be arrested and sent to jail simply because you are in court when someone else's cell phone rings, and the judge is frustrated by his inability to identify the culprit.
Here's what Judge Restaino did, according to the Commission on Judicial Conduct that removed him as a judge:
The salient facts are undisputed. When the cell phone rang while respondent was presiding in a Domestic Violence Part, he immediately directed the owner to come forward or else “everybody could take a week in jail…Everyone is going to jail; every single person is going to jail in this courtroom unless I get that instrument now.” It is shocking that respondent’s immediate response to what was, at worst, a breach of courtroom etiquette by an unknown individual was a threat to incarcerate all the defendants present en masse. Even as a threat, such a reaction was disproportionate and improper. It is even more shocking that, over the next two hours, he methodically proceeded to carry out his threat without realizing that his extreme response was far more disruptive than a ringing phone.
When no one took responsibility for the phone, respondent directed that no one be allowed to leave the courtroom while court security conducted a search and respondent himself took a brief recess. Barring anyone from leaving the courtroom while the search was conducted was, in itself, an excessive response to the ringing phone since it affected scores of people who had done nothing wrong. Despite the opportunity during the recess to reconsider his actions, respondent did not withdraw the threat. Returning to court, he began to question the defendants individually, starting with the defendant who had been standing before him when the phone rang. Although it was clear that that individual was not the owner of the phone – as respondent now concedes – respondent committed him into custody, revoking his recognizance release and setting $1,500 bail. He then proceeded to call the remaining cases on the calendar and to recall the cases of eleven defendants who had been released earlier that morning. After questioning each defendant about the phone, he revoked his or her recognizance release and reinstated bail or set additional bail, committing a total of 46 defendants into custody. After being placed in crowded holding cells which could scarcely accommodate the large numbers of individuals who were being committed, 32 defendants were released on bail, and the remaining 14 defendants who could not post bail were transported by bus, in handcuffs and shackles, to the County Jail in Lockport, where they were held for several hours until respondent came to his senses and ordered their release later that day.
Respondent questioned only defendants about the ringing phone. He did not question any of the prosecutors, defense attorneys, court personnel, program representatives or others who were present in the courtroom.
The power given to even a city judge in a petty court is astounding, when you think of it. And the people who receive that power are really no different than the rest of us – including those of us who are unbalanced.
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