By Jim Dwyer (New York Times)
June 3, 2014
Let us eavesdrop on an email exchange between two men who have been friends for 40 years, talking in the way people do when they have known each other for most of their adult lives.
One is a senior judge in New York State, Barry Kamins. The other is Charles J. Hynes, who, at the time of this dialogue two years ago, was the district attorney of Brooklyn and was getting ready to run for a seventh term. Under the rules, a sitting judge is not supposed to get involved with politics, old friend or not.
“Have you thought who will be your wartime consigliere once the campaign starts?” Justice Kamins asked.
“Dennis makes sense,” Mr. Hynes responded, “but with a high degree of secrecy, I will turn to you frequently for judgment calls.”
This conversation — which deserves its own chapter in the annals of reckless if not nitwitted things to have put in emails — emerged this week in a 27-page report from the New York City’s Department of Investigation, which fished through a bucket of such slop and declared that Justice Kamins had broken the prohibitions on a judge engaging in political activity and that he had used his office to boost the career of Mr. Hynes.
Although, let’s face it, as a booster, Justice Kamins was a historic flop: Mr. Hynes lost by a three-to-one ratio in November. All that remains of the final Hynes campaign is the catalog of folly and banality assembled by city investigators. They accuse Mr. Hynes, desperate not to leave the office he had held since 1990, of paying a political and public relations consultant $200,000 from money seized from criminals in forfeiture actions.
Judges come from a political world; even the most capable must curry favor to run for the office or win an appointment. They often have to raise campaign money. Their life is rooted in politics. Once in office, they are expected to thread a needle of discretion on those very same activities to avoid seeking or bestowing favor.
This tension between purity and actual life was explained by Richard Neely, former chief justice of West Virginia’s Supreme Court, in his 1981 book, “How Courts Govern America.”
“In elected politics, the legislature and executive take idealistic, energetic, ambitious young men and turn them into whores in five years; the judiciary takes good, old, tired, experienced whores and turns them into virgins in five years,” Mr. Neely wrote.
Few should have known more about the perils of this tightrope act than Justice Kamins, who before becoming a judge had a long and highly regarded legal career as a prosecutor, defense lawyer, scholar and teacher. He is a past president of the New York City Bar Association. Among his areas of expertise is legal ethics, which he taught to young prosecutors in Brooklyn. He also was hired to defend lawyers and judges who had gotten into their own legal jams. Six years ago, at 65, he was appointed to the city’s Criminal Court by Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg. It is the lowest rung of the court system. He rose like a rocket and became the chief of policy and planning for the entire New York State court system before being relieved of his administrative duties on Monday.
How could Justice Kamins have written, in his emails, a script that seemed to violate the very rules that he stood for? His lawyer, Paul G. Shechtman, said the constant between Mr. Hynes and the judge, who had been young prosecutors together in Brooklyn during the early 1970s, was their friendship, not the different roles they played in public life over the years. Mr. Hynes, known as Joe, was startled by how vulnerable he seemed in the 2013 campaign and turned to Justice Kamins, who had been his confidant as a private citizen, Mr. Shechtman said.
“Joe was talking to Barry to lament, to gripe,” Mr. Shechtman explained.
In reply, Justice Kamins coached, edited and urged on Mr. Hynes. “I hope people will recognize that this falls into the category of ‘harmless error,’ ” Mr. Shechtman said, invoking a phrase used to excuse blatant courtroom mistakes.
As for Mr. Hynes, at age 79 he faces an investigation into his use of forfeiture money and the resources of his office to promote a record of far-reaching initiatives, while trying — futilely — to obscure the consequential errors that nearly every district attorney makes.
Why such desperate measures? “It must be difficult to go through life being irrelevant!” Mr. Hynes wrote about a news reporter.
That is a state he must, at long last, wish fervently for himself.