EDITORIAL: Racism Has Infected Sullivan County's Justice System For Decades. It Must Stop.
A scathing opinion by the Third Department on July 1 leaves a scar not only on the legacy of retired County Court Judge Frank LaBuda but on Sullivan County's justice system as a whole.
That’s because LaBuda likely did not wake up one day in 2018 (as he neared mandatory retirement a year later) and decide to make a speech from the bench that can only be viewed as racist - and that was, in fact, deemed racist by the Appellate Division, Third Department panel.
Had LaBuda not retired as mandated when he reached the age 70, he most certainly would have been recommended for removal from the bench by the State Commission on Judicial Conduct and officially removed by the New York Court of Appeals like his former colleague, Michael McGuire (now the County Attorney).
In Sullivan County, locking up people of color with the harshest of sentences - including many for nonviolent crimes - has been a deplorable pattern for decades that started under Steve Lungen, known throughout the state as the district attorney who had the highest conviction rate and lowest number of plea bargains. (Coincidentally, LaBuda was Lungen's chief assistant district attorney during the 1980's before challenging him for his job in 1989).
And more recently, even though there was no love lost between LaBuda and former District Attorney Jim Farrell, the two clearly benefited politically when Farrell sought - and LaBuda agreed - to mete out life sentences relying on the prosecution tool of “persistent felony offender.” Farrell was DA and Meagan Galligan (now DA) was his chief assistant district attorney in 2018 when LaBuda made the biased remarks.
No one here is questioning whether Angelo Johnson had a persistent track record of crimes or that Farrell was within the law to seek 15 years to life. Or that LaBuda was within sentencing guidelines to impose the maximum sentence. But the punishment is supposed to fit the crime and this one, like too many others in Sullivan County, was excessive when compared to similar cases around the state.
While campaigning for DA, and later for County Court judge, Farrell successfully used his tough on crime message in asking for maximum sentences. But LaBuda also benefited politically when agreeing to many of those sentences by winning judicial elections.
The bigger issue now is how does Sullivan County demonstrate that its system of justice is fair to all citizens regardless of race, ethnicity and religion?
LaBuda's comments from the bench in September 2018 should raise questions among civil rights organizations and legal authorities about his judicial record, which dates back more than two decades.
This July 1 Third Department decision will likely result in at least some post-conviction motions by people of color sentenced by LaBuda since he first took the bench. The question, though, is which of the many prominent criminal defense attorneys in Sullivan County will take the lead in seeking equal justice for those who may have been victims of LaBuda's racial bias?
They need to look at ALL of LaBuda’s cases, including the many courtroom transcripts, to see where his racial bias reared its ugly head. And if they fail to do so, then the New York Civil Liberties Union and American Civil Liberties Union need to consider taking on the task.
On top of that, the Chief Judge of the State of New York and the Attorney General of the State of New York also need to review LaBuda’s cases to determine if the Angelo Johnson case was an aberration or fit a pattern of racial bias.
And how will Galligan's office respond to these motions?
But the systemic racism that has infected Sullivan’s justice system for decades isn’t just because of Farrell and Labuda. They got help often from political heavyweights like Sheriff Michael Schiff and Undersheriff Eric Chaboty, who less than a decade ago embraced the racist group known as The Oathkeepers. Sure, the Sheriff's Office recently publicly distanced itself from Stewart Rhodes and his group but only AFTER the January 6 riots and only when challenged by this media outlet and others.
The Sheriff's Office mandatory "police reform" plan that was due in Albany a few months ago, was an insult to the individuals and civil rights groups across the County who have pushed for all local law enforcement agencies to improve their relations with the communities they serve in the aftermath of George Floyd's murder. Here's a list of other plans from around the state, including many that took the responsibility much more seriously.
Galligan, mentored nearly her entire career by Farrell, continues to employ a senior investigator named Gerard Dietz, who has escaped disciplinary action for decades despite multiple allegations of police brutality and racial bias as laid out in previous lawsuits - and one $200,000 settlement paid out to a victim by the Village of Monticello when he was employed as a Monticello police officer.
Galligan, too, last year promoted (on her campaign Facebook page) the endorsement of a Second Amendment advocate during her recent campaign for DA. That man posted a meme of a man peeing on a sign that said “Black Lives Matter.”
The Sullivan County Bar Association, in which LaBuda and Galligan are members, has not only failed to confront racism in our justice system in any public way, but its members have for too long enabled it. And that includes many defense attorneys who have mostly been too timid to challenge the Sheriff, police chiefs, the DA’s office or judges.
As for LaBuda, Carolyn B. George, the attorney who represented plaintiff Angelo Johnson in the Third Department case decided last week, shedded more light on the retired judge's behavior in an email to The SullivanTimes over the weekend:
"I can tell you that this issue (of racist comments) did NOT come up during oral argument nor can I claim any credit for making the argument, " George wrote. "I know Judge Lynch very well and I think this issue came to him when he read the transcript of the trial in preparation for writing the decision. Judge LaBuda was harsh and flippant throughout the proceedings, which is why my client had five different trial attorneys and 26 court appearances. I think Lynch was looking for a way to reduce the sentence and fashioned this route. He had the courage to speak up and bring this horrible behavior to light."
George added that Johnson is scheduled for parole review in August. She said that she spoke with her client by phone in preparation for oral argument and “found him to be quiet, well-mannered, and lucid. I think he may have some untreated and undiagnosed mental illness that has affected his behavior but he was not the wild man portrayed by the judge. He wrote many letters to me suggesting issues for the brief. He certainly did not deserve to be treated this way and I hope he can make the best of his much-earlier release."
Thankfully, LaBuda is retired and will never be a candidate for office in Sullivan again. But Schiff is up for re-election, Galligan continues to get a pass for Dietz and her connection to Michael Gagliardi and too many criminal defense attorneys in the County have made political donations to Galligan as they did to Farrell.
Until Sullivan County voters, regardless of party, begin challenging the corrupt and biased status quo by putting up qualified challengers for Sheriff, DA and County Court Judge, nothing will change in the local justice system for the next three decades.
Let’s remember that in Sullivan and beyond, racism has no place in our justice system or anywhere in society. As Americans, we must call out dangerous, hateful rhetoric that implies one race, one religion or one ethnic group, is superior to another.
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”