SARANAC LAKE - Essex County and Acting State Supreme Court Judge Richard Meyer may have violated state judicial ethics laws by providing legal advice to Michael Scaringe's former attorney.
Franklin County District Attorney Derek Champagne said this morning that his office has reviewed testimony Meyer provided earlier this week as a witness in the Scaringe case, which concluded Wednesday with the former Saranac Lake Youth Center director being found guilty of rape, sexual abuse and endangering the welfare of a child.
"We had a meeting yesterday, we reviewed the transcript, we've completed our review and are complying with what our ethical obligations are," Champagne said.
Asked if he's contacted the New York Commission on Judicial Conduct, which is charged with overseeing the state's judicial ethics laws and investigating violations of those laws, Champagne declined to comment.
Meyer was subpoenaed to testify in the case by defense attorney Mary Rain. He took the stand on Tuesday morning, telling the jury that Scaringe had worked in his father's drug store in Saranac Lake in the 1960s. The two became friends, Meyer said, when they played saxophone together in a school band in 1966; Scaringe was a high school senior at the time and Meyer was in seventh grade.
Rain asked Meyer several times if he ever saw Scaringe interact with children or show them physical affection, like hugging. Meyer described Scaringe as "always a very kind and a nice person" and said he saw Scaringe interact with kids when the two were growing up in Saranac Lake, but he said he never witnessed anything physical.
Under cross-examination by Chief Assistant District Attorney Jack Delehanty, Meyer was asked if he ever contacted Scaringe's former attorney, Brian Barrett, to suggest a defense strategy in the case. Meyer said he didn't recall contacting Barrett, but said that Barrett had contacted him.
Delehanty then asked Meyer if he ever sent Barrett a fax containing a defense strategy.
"I sent him a fax, yes," the judge said without elaboration, and Delehanty didn't ask any additional questions on the subject.
In an interview at his office Wednesday, Champagne said the prosecution wanted to raise the issue of Meyer providing legal advice to Scaringe in an attempt to discredit him as a witness. Beyond that, there wasn't a need to dig deeper into the matter during cross-examination, he said.
"Our position was, 'Look, we're not going to get into it, we're just going to simply ask the question,' and as the judge stated and admitted to there was a fax sent, which obviously goes towards bias and credibility of him as a witness like any other witness," Champagne said.
Just what information or legal advice the fax contained remains unclear. Meyer said in a Thursday email that he is "prohibited from making any public comment" though he wished he could. Barrett declined to comment when contacted by the Enterprise.
Champagne said the DA's office hasn't actually seen the fax.
"The information we had, and we confirmed it to make sure we were accurate, was that Michael went to the judge's house and that Judge Meyer sent (the fax) to Barrett," the DA said Wednesday. "That was the information we were directly provided. We were just told it was trial strategy."
Rain, who took over as defense counsel after Scaringe fired Barrett, said she's never seen or heard of the fax.
"When the DA's office mentioned it, that's the first that I heard that," she said. "There's nothing in my file that I received from Brian Barrett indicating that he received a fax from Judge Meyer about strategy."
State Commission on Judicial Conduct Administrator and Counsel Robert Tembeckjian told the Enterprise Thursday that he's been made aware, through news reports, of the questions being raised about Meyer's statements in the Scaringe trial, but he said he could only speak in generalities about the issue.
Tembeckjian said a judge is allowed to participate as a "fact witness" in a trial, such as a witness to a car accident or an assault, but judges are prohibited from appearing voluntarily as character witnesses unless they've been subpoenaed.
Rain told the Enterprise Wednesday that she subpoenaed Meyer to testify as "a witness to the facts," not a character witness. But she also gave the impression that Meyer, whom she hadn't met until the day he took the stand, volunteered to testify.
"I met Judge Meyer on Tuesday morning as I walked in the courthouse area," Meyer said. "It was at that time that I spoke to him about the case and he indicated he'd be willing to testify to his knowledge of some information that he had."
But did Meyer violate judicial ethics laws by providing legal advice to Scaringe, as the DA's office alleged? Tembeckjian, again speaking generally, said a full-time judge is prohibited from practicing law, although a part-time judge can do so, with certain limitations.
Meyer is a full-time judge, or at least he was in the fall of 2009, according to information he provided to the Enterprise when he ran for office that year. Meyer said then that he has served as judge of the County, Family and Surrogate's courts in Essex County since 2005 and in 2008 was designated a "full-time" acting Supreme Court justice.
If Meyer is a full-time judge, does sending a fax containing a defense strategy qualify as practicing law? And is that the only role Meyer played the case, or did he provide Scaringe with other legal assistance? The Enterprise wasn't able to get answers to those questions.
It's also worth noting that the state's judicial conduct statute contains broad language that says judges must "avoid impropriety and the appearance of impropriety in all of their activities.
"A judge shall not allow family, social, political or other relationships to influence the judge's judicial conduct or judgment," the law states.
Whether the state commission will look into or already is probing Meyer's testimony in the Scaringe trial is unknown. Its activities are, for the most part, confidential. And it doesn't need a report from Champagne to do so. Anyone can file a complaint to the commission to initiate an investigation, and the commission also has the legal authority to do so on its own, based on information that comes to its attention, Tembeckjian said.
"I can't comment on any particular matter, but we do read the newspapers, and when there are matters that are reported involving the conduct of judges, it's something typically we'd review to determine whether there is a basis to investigate," Tembeckjian said.