Legal Ethics

State appeals judge sanctioned over letter to parole board for 'friend'

A New York appeals court judge has been admonished for writing a letter to the state parole board asking that a man serving time for manslaughter in a drunken boating accident that killed two be released from prison.

The admonition of Judge Nancy Smith, a senior associate justice on the appellate division in Rochester, marked the first time the Judicial Conduct Commission has sanctioned an appellate judge, the Syracuse Post-Standard reported.

Smith’s letter (PDF) to the parole board in 2011, when Craig Cordes became eligible for parole, was written on her judicial stationery and began by announcing her title and name of the court. She also noted that she is a former trial court judge and prosecutor. She did not mention that she had never met the man whose release she sought. She did call him her “friend.”

But that friendship was based on her correspondence with him by post, which began after she was approached by the mother of Cordes, who in 2008 pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 3⅓ to 10 years in prison. Cordes’ mother knew a relative of the judge, but made the contact directly.

Smith wrote that Cordes “is a good person who did a bad thing. He has taken responsibility and has reflected on his actions and the consequences of his behavior.” Cordes was denied parole.

“It is difficult to believe that as a judge for 18 years she would not have known that sending such a letter was improper,” the commission wrote (PDF), then listed her ethics training, earlier commission rulings, cases and annual reports on similar matters and numerous advisory opinions. It added that “in the time that it took respondent to compose the letter, she had ample opportunity to reflect on the ethical implications or seek advice as to the propriety of her planned conduct.”

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