On September 9, 2022, the New York State Commission on Judicial Conduct released its determination that Robert J. Putorti, a Justice of the Whitehall Town Court and the Whitehall Village Court, Washington County, should be removed from office for unjustifiably pointing a handgun at a defendant, then bragging about it and characterizing the incident in racial terms.

The judge was charged with violating Sections 100.1, 1002(A),100.2(C), 100.3(B)(3), 100.3(B)(4), 100.4(A)(l) and (2) and 100.4(C)(3)(b)(i) of the Rules Governing Judicial Conduct.

According to the complaint, in late 2015 or early 2016, while presiding over a criminal matter, Judge Putorti brandished a semi-automatic handgun at a defendant who did not pose an imminent threat to the judge or anyone else. Subsequently, on several occasions, he described the incident to other judges, variously describing the defendant as a “big Black man,” a “large Black man” about 6 feet 9 inches tall and “built like a football player.” (In fact, the defendant was approximately 6 feet tall and weighed 165 pounds.)

Although Judge Putorti said he brandished his gun because the defendant approached the bench “too quickly,” and that the police officer who was standing at the bench at the time joked about how quickly he drew his gun, the judge acknowledged that neither the officer nor the Assistant District Attorney who was present corroborated his story.

Judge Putorti, who was later required to discuss the incident with his supervising judge, signed a counseling memorandum, agreeing never to display, use or threaten to use a firearm in court except in response to “deadly physical force.”

In its determination, the Commission said it was “troubled by Judge Putorti’s repeated description of the defendant’s race,” noting also that he “exaggerated the defendant’s] physical stature.”

The determination states:

“We are troubled by respondent’s repeated description of Mr. Wood’s race. In 2016, respondent told his
former co-judge that he had brandished his gun at a “big Black man,” He told his fellow judges at the October 2018 Washington County Magistrates Association meeting that he had brandished his gun at a “large Black man” and repeated that description to his supervising judge.’? Moreover, respondent acknowledged that by identifying Mr. Wood by race, respondent may have created the appearance of racial bias. Such appearance, particularly in the context of respondent’s extremely inappropriate action toward Mr. Wood, is wholly unacceptable for a member of the judiciary.”

A dissenting opinion, filed on September 2, 2022, argued that Judge Putorti was not racially biased because he went to the courthouse/jail during his lunch hour to reduce Mr. Wood’s fine to community service and release him from jail. The Commission, however, said that there is nothing in the record to indicate the date upon which this occurred or the respondent’s motive for these actions.

The Commission found that Judge Putorti’s actions “demonstrated that he lacks the appropriate judicial temperament” and that “his actions irreparably undermined confidence in his ability to continue as a judge.”

Nine of the panel’s 10 members concurred with the decision to remove Putorti from the bench. Judge Putorti has until October 14 to decide whether he’ll accept the Commission’s determination or make a written request to the Chief Judge for a review of the determination by the Court of Appeals.

A copy of the original filing can be found here.