Judge removed for brandishing gun he kept attached under bench with magnet

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A New York judge has been removed from the bench for brandishing a loaded gun at a litigant and then describing the incident in an exaggerated and racial manner. Image from Shutterstock.

Updated: A New York judge has been removed from the bench for brandishing a loaded gun at a litigant and then describing the incident in an exaggerated and racial manner.

The New York Court of Appeals, the state’s top court, approved the removal of Robert J. Putorti, a town and village justice in Whitehall, New York, in an Oct. 19 opinion.

Putorti is not a lawyer, according to prior coverage.

The litigant, who is Black, posed no threat to anyone, according to the opinion. He was 6 feet tall and weighed 165 pounds. Putorti had said after the incident the litigant approached the bench too quickly, causing him to brandish the gun that he kept attached to the underside of his bench using a magnet.

Putorti had said he subjectively feared for his safety but acknowledged that he had no reasonable basis to think that the litigant was about to use imminent deadly force. He also acknowledged that he was not justified in brandishing the gun.

Putorti talked about the incident multiple times and appeared at least once to be boasting, the appeals court said.

Putorti told his cousin, a journalism student, that he brandished his gun when someone ran up to the bench. Putorti stipulated, however, that the prosecutor and a police officer in the courtroom would not be able to corroborate this version of the events.

Putorti later showed his cousin’s article to another judge, telling her that he drew his gun on a “big Black man” who was “agitated.” At a magistrates’ meeting in 2018, he said he once pointed his gun at a “large Black man” who came too close to the bench.

When Putorti’s supervising judge questioned him about the incident, Putorti said the litigant was “a ‘large Black man’” who was about 6 feet, 9 inches tall and was “built like a football player.” He said a bullet was not in the chamber, but it takes “a split second” to load.

Putorti was licensed to carry a gun and had been advised that he could legally carry a concealed firearm in court.

Putorti had argued that he was not acting with racial bias, and his references to a “big Black man” were merely descriptive. The New York Court of Appeals rejected that explanation.

“By repeatedly referring to the litigant in the manner that he did, petitioner exploited a classic and common racist trope that Black men are inherently threatening or dangerous, exhibiting bias or, at least, implicit bias,” the appeals court said.

The appeals court said removal was justified because of the egregious facts of the case.

“While presiding over his courtroom, petitioner brandished a loaded firearm at a litigant who presented no threat to anyone,” the appeals court said. “Rather than show remorse, he described his conduct in a press interview and boasted about it to his colleagues, while repeatedly, and gratuitously, referring to the litigant’s race.”

The appeals court also noted that Putorti had improperly used social media to raise funds for his Elks Lodge. That misconduct would not warrant removal. But it happened while Putorti was being investigated for the gun incident, evincing “an unwillingness or inability to abide by the Rules of Judicial Conduct,” the appeals court said.

One of Putorti’s lawyers, Nate Riley, gave this statement to the ABA Journal: “We appreciate your interest in this matter, which has garnered much discussion among the members of the judiciary. While we disagree with it, we respect the decision of the court of appeals and thank the members of the court for their careful consideration of the arguments raised. No further comment.”

Updated Oct. 19 at 1:30 p.m. to add the comment from Nate Riley.

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