His superiors in the state court system have stopped assigning new cases to State Supreme Court Judge John A. Michalek, who is the subject of an investigation by the State Attorney General’s office, the FBI and other law enforcement agencies.
And the state also has begun to transfer cases from Michalek’s court to other judges in Western New York.
“I can confirm that cases are being reassigned from the judge, and also that he is not being assigned any new cases at this time,” Lucian Chalfin, a spokesman for the state Unified Court System, told The Buffalo News on Friday.
Chalfin said he could not comment when asked why the state is taking the highly unusual action involving the 21-year judge. But high-ranking attorneys at three Buffalo law firms said they are convinced that the move is directly linked to the ongoing investigation into Michalek’s relationships with longtime political operative G. Steven Pigeon and other Buffalo attorneys and political figures.
“To me, this is very unfair,” said one Buffalo attorney who supports Michalek but spoke on the condition of anonymity. “It’s almost like the state is convicting him of doing something wrong before all the evidence is in.”
The action taken by state court administrators was commended by Vincent M. Bonventre, a longtime Albany Law School professor who is an expert in legal ethics.
“I would not view this is any way as a conviction of the judge,” said Bonventre, who has been following the case. “It’s about assuring the public that all the judges in our system are above reproach. The administrators of the state courts are saying that there are questions that have arisen about this judge that we have to look into before he begins handling cases again.”
The News first disclosed on May 3 that the State Attorney General’s office, State Police, the FBI and federal prosecutors are investigating a series of emails between Michalek and Pigeon, a former Democratic Party leader. The News also has learned that authorities are investigating other emails sent by the judge – using his official state courts email – and other individuals in Buffalo’s legal community.
In some of the emails, Michalek was imploring Pigeon to help a relative of Michalek get a government job, four sources closely familiar with the probe told The News.
One official who has worked in the state courts for more than 25 years told The News that this is the first time he has ever heard of cases being taken away from a judge under such circumstances.
“We began to hear” on Thursday “that Judge Michalek was being divested of all his cases. So much for the presumption of innocence for the judge,” the official said.
When asked if Michalek had any say in the decision to move his cases to other judges, Chalfin said only that the 64-year-old “acquiesced” with the decision made by court administrators.
One high-ranking lawyer at a Buffalo law firm said, “Several lawyers in our firm were told this week that any cases they had with Judge Michalek were being moved to another judge. No explanation was given.”
In recent weeks, a number of witnesses involved with the courts and local politics have testified before a Buffalo grand jury that is hearing testimony about Michalek’s emails to Pigeon and other related issues, sources close to the case told The News on Friday.
While Michalek, who became a state judge in 1995, has never commented publicly about the probe, several local attorneys have spoken in his defense, calling him a man of integrity with an unblemished record of public service.
Carrie H. Cohen, a New York City defense attorney who now represents Michalek, did not return a call and an email seeking her comment on Friday. A former state and federal prosecutor, Cohen took over Michalek’s case about two weeks ago.
Paul J. Cambria, who represents Pigeon with co-counsel Dennis C. Vacco, said, “I have no comment, no reaction at all” when asked for his reaction to state court officials taking cases from Michalek.
Bonventre said that, in his view, state court administrators could not allow Michalek to continue hearing cases and to continue getting new case assignments until the questions surrounding the state investigation are addressed.
A judge since 1995, Michalek currently earns $193,000. Thanks to cross-endorsements he received from party bosses, he has never faced a contested election.
Michalek worked as a prosecutor with the Erie County District Attorney’s Office before he was selected to become a judge, and in 2005, he received the Outstanding Jurist Award from the Erie County Bar Association’s Matrimonial and Family Law Committee.
“Having his cases taken away from him,” one court official said on Friday, “that is not a good thing for any judge.”