When the wheels of justice sometimes seem unfair, sluggish, and vexing, it is undoubtedly reassuring to witness a situation where high standards, integrity, and judicial ethics win. This happened recently when one city judge, whose sentence for another city judge adjudicated for a DWI charge, epitomizes Lady Justice’s blindfold, sword, and balanced scales.
The sentence handed down by City Judge Stephen Aronson was read, his gavel contacted wood, and defendant/Judge Leticia Astacio remained … indignant. Nevertheless, the woman who once wore a black robe was dressed in orange, shackled, and led by deputies to Monroe County jail.
City Judge Leticia Astacio, whose judgeship commenced in 2015, was arrested for a DWI in February 2016. Reportedly, she was on her way to preside over criminal cases in a Rochester, NY courtroom one morning when her single-vehicle crash was investigated by New York State troopers, resulting in her arrest for suspicion of DWI. In retrospect, that event started the downward spiral leading to a fall from grace (the bench).
The saga unfolded bizarrely. After the initial DWI arrest, Judge Astacio was summoned before a judicial supervisor, Justice Craig Doren, presiding with the New York State Supreme Court. This was to be an administrative hearing to discuss her legal woes.
Although Astacio had a subsequent court hearing one month after her arrest, she purchased a one-way ticket to Thailand and thus missed her court date. That is when a judge ordered a bench warrant for Astacio’s arrest. The plot thickened, the legal dilemmas piled-up.
According to Astacio’s attorney, she texted him that she was “in a temple in the mountains with monks” while in Thailand and while her case was before the court. If I stepped in criminal caca, I’d want to be with peaceful monks too. But the wheels of justice will never support that wish, and the once-judge certainly knew that better than most.
Regardless of her soul-searching sabbatical, Astacio eventually returned to the States and presented in court. Once she returned to the States, she was arrested based on that FTA (Failure to appear) warrant. Seemingly unfazed, Astacio smiled through it all and conducted banter with camera operators and her attorney. Astacio’s attorney told the media that the entire case and how the judicial system snowballed it into one of “much ado about nothing,” propagated public opinion against his client, who found the ruling unjust.
Another hearing was held. Judge Aronson read from a prepared statement that he found her “contemptuous” and seemingly “indifferent to responsibility.” He elaborated that she was flouting the system while also being “self-sabotaging.”
Judge Aronson addressed an alert from a court-ordered ignition airlock device which was purportedly used in Astacio’s car in NY while she was “half-way around the world” (for three months). Astacio alluded that her daughter may have been the breath behind that alcohol-infused “blow.” The case nuances became more and more sketchy. While Judge Aronson read his statement, Astacio sat poised with legs crossed, arms folded on her lap, and her head cocked to the left … squinting the whole time as in disbelief.
Offering Astacio a plea-deal regarding the drunk-driving charge, Judge Aronson exposed his tentative sentence which would consist of 45 days in jail, two years’ probation, and an ankle monitoring device. He explained he felt she needed supervision to do the things she must do to comply and put the case behind her. What happened? She declined his offer and she was promptly arrested in court. The case rolled on for yet another hearing.
Back in court and before the sentencing phase Astacio, adorning prison-orange garb, addressed the court for approximately 21 minutes. She delivered a message demonstrative of someone who is, as Judge Aronson said in an earlier court hearing, “indifferent to responsibility.” She harped on how she has been made to be a villain by the media and how her family has suffered immensely since her February 2016 DWI arrest. Nevertheless, justice had its final say.
In a tone indicative of frustration, Judge Aronson admonished Astacio from the bench:
“Nowhere in your presentation did I hear one word of remorse or contrition for the acts that you were found guilty of. You give me the impression that you are disregarding the judicial system and avoiding your responsibilities under it. You were ordered to perform a drug test and you didn’t … plain and simple. Instead you came back here, in court, and your attorney said ‘Sure, we’ll do one as soon as you want, judge.’ Well this judge ordered you to do one immediately. I have been the treatment court judge in Ontario County for 18 years. I deal with people who avoid the system … and you are giving me all indications that you are avoiding the system.”
In a moment of practiced protocols and the judicial process, Astacio preceded sentencing by directing her attention at Judge Aronson, saying, “You can’t punish me any more than you already have.”
Without delay, Judge Aronson handed down a sentence entailing 60 days in jail and three years probation. That elicited a courtroom outburst from Astacio’s daughter who, from the seating area, blurted out, “F—K you, Judge Aronson!” After she rebuffed the judge, guess who was immediately removed by law enforcement? Someone who went from black, to Thailand, to orange cried at that moment, her head jutted to the ceiling. Shortly thereafter, Astacio is heard saying, “Can I go back to jail, please?”
And so it went: a self-professed reformed judge, who reportedly enjoyed meditation, silence, and tranquility among monks, arrogantly decided she’d order-up her own sentence. Disapproving of being on probation, through her attorney, Astacio claimed she’d not comply with terms of probation and sought to serve straight jail time. Judge Aronson replied, “What she wants is irrelevant!”
And that was a wrap. In all of the footage described and attached herein, note the prosecutor who sat in the middle of the courtroom, like a sole survivor alone on an island, listening to crashing surf while all the drama transpired all around him. Also notice how the courtroom law enforcement officials seemed a tad tense, perhaps discomfited by the fact that they saw it coming: handcuffing and escorting to jail a judge from whom they formerly took and fulfilled judicial orders on a daily basis.
Orange is the new Black
Unwittingly, the cable series “Orange is the New Black” became a reality for Astacio as she was led from a Rochester courtroom where she once presided over criminal cases. The clanking coin exhibited both sides of crime and punishment in this widely-reported case, even a soul-searching stint in monkhood. While she delved into the world of metaphysics and peacefully meditated with an aura of ambiance, Rochester Judge Stephen Aronson issued a bench warrant. The polarity is astounding.
Throughout this sensational case, Astacio somehow kept her $174K/year judgeship salary even though her judicial officer status and responsibilities were negated by a state-level judge. On one of her Facebook pages (there are seemingly three), Astacio posted on June 10, 2017: “If you have ever been defended by or appeared in front of Judge Astacio, please share your positive experience. #teamastacio” The comments grew, containing the following verbatim excerpt from one supporter/former client:
“They want u to break! Don’t give them what they want! My kids see u a a lot on tv and they say mom your lawyer is on tv … And we pray for u daily! I hope all of this just go away sooooo soon god bless u … They can’t make you look bad to me … Your only human … They all have secrets and flaws … I will never forget … U was a excellent lawyer that represented me after I through the minute maid juice in my kids father face and he called the law … I still have issues with him because god made no one perfect I just pray we all get better …”
Surely, it is true God made no one perfect. It is also accurate to say we all make mistakes. God also conferred upon us free will … and that engenders responsibility for our actions, not denial of them. Rhetoric aside, if a sitting judge is expected to role-model our rule of law (actually swearing an oath to do so), accepting responsibility is one major nugget to behold … one from which many witnesses can learn right and wrong. The evolution of this case was quite contrary. It appeared it could have concluded last year instead of June 2017.
During the Obama administration, Ms. Astacio cut her legal teeth volunteering in legal clinics offering pro bono (free) legal representation for immigrants seeking DACA protections, as per an article in The Daily record published in October 2012. The Deferred Action Child Arrivals (DACA) program is a product of the Obama administration and one which the Trump administration is considering revamping (or eliminating). Conversely, reports indicate Judge Stephen Aronson is a Clinton supporter.
The latter dynamic intrigues me in two ways: albeit among the Clinton camp, Judge Aronson nevertheless exhibited an unbiased ruling. Given his political alignment of a 2016 presidential candidate who eschewed the police for alleged “implicit bias,” he went the other way and clearly found the NYS troopers fulfilled their oath without bias. Law enforcement in the Astacio DUI case (including the Monroe County DA’s office for whom she once worked as a DUI Bureau prosecutor) did their jobs according to ethical principles and state codes, and without preferential treatment. At an evolutionary period in our society when many are jabbing the judicial system with claims of bias, favoritism, and indiscriminate proceedings, this case does everything it is supposed to, especially telegraphing an objective role of impartiality, black robe or not.
All judges were once practicing attorneys who, in time, make it to the bench where they preside over thousands of cases. Some vie for such a plateau and are nominated by their legal peers for fairness, objectivity, and an appropriate grip on jurisprudence. Some drink or drive their way out of such a rite-of-passage and right into the back of a squad car. Effectively, the black robe is stained and the orange utilities are supplied by tax payers.
A judge went from justice mojo to pre-sentencing moxy. And she is mad at the media coverage that she claims ruined her legal career. The voice of reason became the voice of a jail season. What do you think of this case and the maximum sentence? What about Ms. Astacio’s litany of excuses: Any merits? Was Judge Aronson just and fair?