The legal saga of embattled Rochester Judge Leticia Astacio prompts proposals by Helming, Kolb

Perhaps you can call it Leticia Astacio’s Law. Or, as seems likely, just call it another attempt to reform how state government operates that may fall by the wayside.

The embattled Rochester City Court judge’s lengthy legal saga stemming from a drunk-driving arrest and conviction has inspired proposed state legislation introduced by state Sen. Pam Helming and Assembly Minority Leader Brian Kolb, both Republicans from Canandaigua, that would reform the process for investigating and removing “bad judges” from the bench.

But Kolb is angered at Democrats in the Assembly Judiciary Committee for "foolishly" rejecting his proposal to strengthen the ability to discipline judges in a decision that "defies common sense" and makes it appear as if they are "much more comfortable with the flawed status quo."

"The committee's ill-advised decision harms taxpayers and hampers the work of those asked to maintain the integrity of the criminal justice system," Kolb said Thursday in a prepared statement. "The circumstances surrounding Judge Astacio's case in Rochester are rare, but they clearly demonstrate the urgent need for reform."

Last month, the investigating body, the New York State Commission on Judicial Conduct, removed Astacio as an elected judge. She appealed the decision to the New York State Court of Appeals. The Court of Appeals will hear her case in the fall, according to Daily Messenger news partner, News 10NBC.

Astacio was called into court Thursday after a photo of her allegedly buying alcohol surfaced. Judge Stephen Aronson then enhanced her probation to make it a violation if she buys or possesses alcohol, News 10NBC reported.

Up until Thursday morning, Astacio was only barred from drinking alcohol.

The local legislators' bills (S.8593/A.10112-A) require that hearings of the commission be public and provide that judges who are suspended do not receive their, in many cases, six-figure salaries.

Helming said in a prepared statement: “We are all familiar with the local case of a judge who was suspended from the bench following her conviction for driving while intoxicated and has not been working for more than 800 days.”

The judge — whom Helming did not identify by name — continues to receive her salary while under investigation by the commission and despite being involved in several alleged incidents since her initial arrest.

“This is a disgusting affront to justice and a tremendous outrage to the hardworking taxpayers who are struggling to make ends meet while making an honest living,” Helming said. “This is a symptom of a broken system that must be fixed in order to restore integrity in the judiciary.”

Kolb had no problem identifying Astacio.

Astacio’s seemingly endless legal issues and removal process clearly highlight the need for action, Kolb said in a prepared statement.

“Our judicial system cannot function without the ironclad integrity of the men and women who administer the rule of law,” Kolb said. “We must provide the State Commission on Judicial Conduct and Court of Appeals greater authority when it comes to disciplining judges who so blatantly disregard appropriate social and moral behavior. It’s time to arm judicial law with the necessary tools to handle cases like this with swift, decisive action.”

Right now, hearings before the commission are only made public if the judge involved requests so in writing. By the time a hearing takes place, a formal complaint has been filed, thoroughly investigated and deemed legitimate, according to information supplied by Helming’s office.

Perhaps the key aspect of the proposal legislation: Judges who are suspended from office will not receive their salaries during the suspension period. Now, only a court may direct that the salary be suspended.

The state Constitution allows the Court of Appeals to suspend a judge who is charged with a crime that involves “moral turpitude,” but Helming is proposing a clearer definition of the legal term. It spells out the vague term as a misdemeanor or felony that reflects adversely on the judge’s “honesty, trustworthiness or fitness; any violation of the terms of probation or post-release supervision from a prior felony or misdemeanor conviction; any willful repeated misconduct.”

Helming also wants to create a 120-day time frame in which the commission must provide a determination in an investigation of a felony or misdemeanor conviction of a judge or justice. There is no limit for investigations initiated by the commission in the existing law.

Political Roundup, a clearinghouse of announcements and developments in local politics, runs on Fridays in the Daily Messenger. To submit an item for consideration, email senior reporter Julie Sherwood at jsherwood@messengerpostmedia.com.