Cell phone 'lunacy' prompts N.Y. judge's removal

After phantom ringing, he threatens to send everyone in the courtroom to jail--and follows through, at least partially. Panel reviewing the matter concludes "abuse of judicial power."

It was a normal enough morning in a Niagara Falls courtroom, with Judge Robert Restaino plodding through his routine batch of domestic violence arraignments. That is, until a ringing cell phone pierced the air.

What followed was "two hours of inexplicable madness," including the jailing of 46 people, according to the New York State Commission on Judicial Conduct. In a scathing report Tuesday, that panel recommended the city court judge be removed.

"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," Restaino said on that fateful morning of March 11, 2005, according to the commission's report.

"Everyone is going to jail; every single person is going to jail in this courtroom unless I get that instrument now," he went on. "If anybody believes I'm kidding, ask some of the folks that have been here for a while. You are all going."

When no one fessed up, the judge, who was set to deal with 70 cases that morning, called back the 11 defendants he had already released on their own recognizance and set extra bail. All told, he ordered that 46 defendants be held in custody, according to the commission report. They were ultimately placed in crowded "holding" cells at the county jail, and some weren't released for a couple of hours.

Although Restaino "chastised" at length the defendants who claimed ignorance about the ringing phone's owner and accused the culprit of being "self-absorbed" for not coming forward, he never questioned "any of the prosecutors, defense attorneys, court personnel, program representatives or others who were present in the courtroom," the report found.

The commission concluded Restaino, who conceded he had no legal right to take the defendents into custody, had committed "an egregious and unprecedented abuse of judicial power." One panel member, however, said he was more inclined to pursue a penalty somewhere in between censure and complete removal, suggesting the episode was a fluke ("two hours of viral lunacy out of a person's entire professional life").

Restaino, for his part, attributed his behavior to "certain stresses in his personal life," according to the report.

Restaino plans to appeal the ruling and seek reinstatement to the post, which paid $113,900 per year, according to the Associated Press.

 

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