Judge Removed Over Cell-Phone Freakout

strange judicial opinions cell phone freakout

A single ringing phone sent 46 people to jail.

Calling it “an egregious and unprecedented abuse of judicial power,” the New York State Commission on Judicial Conduct ordered the removal of Niagra Falls City Court Judge Robert M. Restaino for an incident in which he freaked out when a cell phone rang in his court. He ended up ordering 46 defendants into police custody when he couldn’t find who had the ringing phone.

It all started when a cell phone went off in the back of a crowded domestic violence courtroom in which 46 defendants were about to be released on their own recognizance. In addition to the defendants, lawyers, court personnel, and others were present—about 70 people total. The judge responded to the offending ring stating:

Now, whoever owns the instrument that is ringing, bring it to me now or everybody could take a week in jail and please don’t tell me I’m the only one that heard that …

Everyone is going to jail; every single person is going to jail in this courtroom unless I get that instrument now … You are all going.

Instead of realizing his mistake and backing off, he proceeded to threaten and badger the poor defendants for two hours to find out whose phone it was. (He didn’t question the lawyers, but, of course, lawyers NEVER have ringing cell phones.)

He berated the group repeatedly about their selfishness:

As I have indicated, this troubles me more than any of you people can understand. Because what I am really, really having a hard time with, that someone in this courtroom who is so self-absorbed, so concerned only for their own well-being, they kind of figure they’re going to be able to establish the bail and it won’t matter so screw all of the rest of you people.

The disciplinary court saw the irony in this diatribe:

It is also ironic that in repeatedly berating the “selfish” and “self-absorbed” individual who “put their interests above everybody else’s” and “[doesn’t] care what happens to anybody,” respondent failed to recognize that he was describing himself.

I feel kind of sorry for Judge Restaino. Apparently, this was the only blemish on his record. Commissioner Raoul Felder dissented as to the sanction of removal because the incident was a “total aberration from his character and demeanor as a judge for eleven years.”  Personally, I feel everyone should be entitled to at least one free unwarranted outburst in public life, sort of like the “one free bite” rule pertaining to dogbites.  Maybe we could call it the “one free oopsy sound-bite” rule.

Restaino’s initial reaction no doubt would have been forgiven. What did him in was his decision to persist for two grinding, painful hours despite repeated pleas to reconsider.

Matter of Restaino, Determination of the New York State Commission on Judicial Conduct, Nov. 29, 2007. Thanks to Daniel Green.

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Andrew Jay McClurg is a law professor whose teaching and research interests include tort law, products liability, legal education, privacy law and firearms policy. He holds the Herbert Herff Chair of Excellence in Law at the University of Memphis Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law.
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