A lawsuit filed in federal court in Manhattan alleges that one of the borough’s top judges only symbolically stepped aside from criminal cases when her husband, Michael McMahon, was elected the borough’s District Attorney in 2015. The plaintiff, a former chief clerk for Staten Island Supreme Court, claims that the judge worked behind the scenes to put cases in front of less lenient judges in order to benefit prosecutors.
In the lawsuit, former chief clerk Michael Pulizotto says that he secretly recorded hundreds of hours of conversations shortly after he began the job in 2015 — conversations that he claims show Justice Judith McMahon steering cases away from judges she deemed “defense-oriented.” After her husband announced his plans to run for district attorney, Justice McMahon formally relinquished her duties over criminal matters, which she had overseen in her capacity as an administrative judge, so as to avoid a conflict of interest. But a recording taken by Pulizotto, which was included in the lawsuit brief, captures Justice Stephen Rooney, who was put in charge of criminal court following McMahon’s reassignment, saying that McMahon was “in the criminal lane” and was making decisions about criminal cases in the courthouse.
In 2016, Justice McMahon’s husband Michael McMahon created a new section of criminal court, Part N, to focus on narcotics cases following a rise in opioid-related deaths in Staten Island. Justice McMahon found that the judge presiding over Part N offered the prosecution more favorable trials, Pulizotto’s lawsuit alleges — so she purposefully sent cases there by making drug offenses the top charge in many criminal cases. For example, the lawsuit claims that Justice McMahon sent a violent crime to the narcotics court because a joint was found in the defendant’s pocket.
In March, Pulizotto filed a complaint with the state Office of Court Administration (OCA), which oversees the state’s judges. The lawsuit alleges that OCA told Justice McMahon that Pulizotto had made the recordings, leading to retaliation from both Justice McMahon and the New York State Court Officers’ Association. He was reassigned from his position this September, following what he claims was a concerted harassment effort by the association. According to the lawsuit, association members took issue with Pulizotto’s secret recordings, and threatened Pulizotto and physically intimidated him on multiple occasions.
Members of the Court Officers Association even went so far as to put a giant inflatable rat outside of the Staten Island Supreme Court. The rat had Pulizotto’s name written on the stomach. The harassment allegations against OCA were confirmed by OCA itself, which claimed responsibility for the inflatable rat in a statement to the Staten Island Advance. “We put it up so everybody understood what he did,” Dennis Quirk, president of the New York State Court Officers Association, told the paper.
In the lawsuit, Pulizotto also claims to have observed an intoxicated white court officer calling a black court officer the “n-word” in December 2013.
The legal complaint questions whether the court truly protects constitutional rights “if countless criminal defendants have been unwittingly ‘scammed’ out of their right to a fair and impartial trial by an Administrative Judge — District Attorney team (who are also husband and wife) to avoid ‘defense-oriented judges.’”
In a statement to The Appeal, John Connors, attorney for Justice McMahon, said that his client “denies the baseless allegations contained in Mr. Pulizotto’s frivolous complaint,” and that McMahon looks forward to the complaint’s dismissal.
Many of the allegations against McMahon remain unconfirmed. But the recordings mentioned in the lawsuit, and the excerpts included in the lawsuit and reviewed by The Appeal, do show concern on the part of Justice Rooney about Justice McMahon’s involvement with criminal cases. Justice McMahon was swiftly transferred to Manhattan following the public disclosure of the allegations in September.
Pulizotto’s lawsuit calls for financial compensation for damages, reinstatement as chief clerk, and the installation of a federal monitor of the Staten Island courts system.