On Tuesday, June 20, 2023, The Buffalo News reported that the New York State Commission on Judicial Conduct is currently investigating State Supreme Court Justice Joseph Lorigo’s use of political contributions and pro-police advertisements during his 2022 campaign. This investigation comes just months after Lorigo was elected to the bench. Lorigo, who is the subject of an ethics complaint, may face censure or removal from his position if found to have engaged in unethical conduct.
State Supreme Court justices are bound by stricter ethics regulations than other elected officials. According to the Commission, a judicial candidate is prohibited from making pledges or promises of conduct in office other than the faithful and impartial performance of their duties. Candidates are also not allowed to make statements that commit or appear to commit them concerning cases, controversies, or issues that may come before the court.
In Lorigo’s campaign mailers, he referenced current political issues, including those related to law enforcement. One ad stated, “Joe Lorigo fought back against politicians who wanted to defund the police” and emphasized his support for law enforcement and opposition to cashless bail. These campaign ads are under scrutiny as they may violate the ethics regulation set forth by the Commission on Judicial Conduct.
In 2003, the Commission announced its intention to strictly enforce political advertising rules for judicial candidates. This move was aimed at preventing candidates from making explicit and repeated statements that suggest a commitment to aid partisan groups, such as the police or the prosecution. The Court of Appeals later overturned the removal of Lockport City Court Judge William Watson, but he was censured for his statements. The court emphasized that judges should apply the law faithfully and impartially, without showing favoritism towards any group or party.
The Commission is also investigating a series of money transfers made by Lorigo between his County Legislature campaign account, his State Supreme Court campaign account, and a political action committee affiliated with his father. On November 1, Lorigo transferred $45,989 from his County Legislature campaign account to his State Supreme Court campaign account. Three months after being elected to the bench, Lorigo’s County Legislature campaign account contributed $41,402 to the Real COnservatives political action committee, which is associated with his father, Ralph C. Lorigo, the longtime chairman of the Erie County Conservative Party.
While these money transfers may appear to be legal under election law, they may contradict an advisory opinion by the state court system’s Advisory Committee on Judicial Ethics. The opinion states that unexpended campaign funds from prior nonjudicial campaigns should not be used for a present campaign for a judicial office for general political party use. Instead, these funds should be returned to donors on a pro-rata basis. The investigation will determine whether Lorigo’s money transfers violated this advisory opinion.
It is unclear who filed the ethics complaint against Lorigo or when it was filed. However, investigations conducted by the State Commission on Judicial Conduct can take several months or even years before a decision is announced. The commission maintains confidentiality regarding complaints unless a judge has been publicly disciplined.
In the past year, the commission investigated 15 complaints against State Supreme Court justices. Five judges were cautioned, one was publicly disciplined, and two others resigned from the bench as a result of these investigations. The outcome of the investigation into Lorigo’s campaign practices will ultimately depend on the evidence and findings gathered by the commission.
The commission looked into 15 complaints made against State Supreme Court justices in the previous year. These investigations led to the cautioning of five judges, the public reprimanding of one judge, and the resignation of two additional judges. The evidence and information gathered by the commission will ultimately determine how the investigation into Lorigo’s campaign tactics turns out.
Source: The Buffalo News