When Erie County Family Court Judge Paul G. Buchanan went to see a suicidal 14-year-old girl in a hospital’s psychiatric unit, he gave her a book and some cookies and told her she had a lot to live for.
But the New York State Commission on Judicial Conduct found his visit improper and left the judge with a lot to answer for.
At the time of his hospital visit, Buchanan was presiding over the girl’s juvenile delinquency case.
The commission last week censured Buchanan for the hospital visit and for three other unrelated incidents in which he unnecessarily berated and rudely treated lawyers and a probation supervisor.
The commission can admonish, censure or remove a judge for misconduct. Censure is a public reprimand, and an admonition is a milder public reprimand or warning.
His improper acts on and off the bench were the first judicial missteps for which the judge of nine years has been disciplined by the commission. Buchanan has since received professional counseling to assist him with the emotional demands of being a Family Court judge, the commission said.
By visiting the girl in the hospital, Buchanan overstepped the appropriate boundaries between a judge and a person involved in a pending matter, the commission said.
Buchanan should have known “that such an unauthorized, private visit, however well-intentioned, would create an appearance of impropriety and compromise his impartiality, and thus was inconsistent with the proper role of a judge,” the commission said.
The judge’s December 2009 visit to the Erie County Medical Center psychiatric unit, where the girl had been taken for observation after an overdose of prescription medication, put his impartiality in question, the commission said.
Buchanan declined to comment and referred questions to his attorney, Richard T. Sullivan, who represented the judge during the commission’s inquiry.
“He made a mistake of the heart, for which he has accepted the consequences,” Sullivan said of the judge’s visit with the girl.
The girl’s Family Court case first came before Buchanan in September 2009. Buchanan released the girl to her mother in November 2009. About 10 days later, the girl was taken to ECMC and then to Women and Children’s Hospital for treatment and observation after the overdose, according to the commission.
The girl was taken back to ECMC in early December 2009 and placed in the psychiatric unit.
Within days of learning of her hospitalization, the judge visited her alone for about 15 minutes, the commission found.
Buchanan “told her that her mother and grandmother loved her and that she had a lot to live for,” the commission said.
“He felt bad for her,” Sullivan said. “He wanted her to know that her life was worth living. He acted like a human being instead of a judge.”
While the commission said Buchanan was motivated by concern for her well-being, it noted that the judge did not seek permission from the girl’s mother, doctor or attorney.
The commission also disciplined Buchanan for yelling at a probation supervisor and a legal aid lawyer, in separate incidents, in his Erie County courtroom.
The commission also cited him for an incident in a Chautauqua County courtroom, where Buchanan issued a decision in a custody and visitation hearing without allowing a law guardian to cross-examine a witness.
During a June 2009 proceeding involving a person in need of supervision, Buchanan directed a court clerk to call Probation Department supervisor Nancy Lauria to his courtroom. The judge recalled the case when Lauria came to the courtroom, but he did not speak to her or note her appearance on the record, the commission said.
After the judge released the juvenile to her legal guardian, and as Lauria was leaving the courtroom, the judge sternly called out that he wanted to speak to Lauria.
When she approached the counsel’s table, Buchanan pointed at her and angrily told her, “Stay there!” and “Don’t come any closer!” according to the commission’s report.
The judge “shook his finger at Lauria and yelled at her in a volume so loud that he was heard by courtroom personnel as well as others who were in an outside hallway behind the closed courtroom doors,” according to the commission report.
The judge chastised her for signing and authorizing for submission a report that did not have the required signature of another supervisor.
Buchanan did not allow her to explain, “shouting over her,” the commission said. And he warned her she would “need to appear with an attorney” if she again signed and submitted such a report without the other supervisor’s signature.
In a March 2010 case, the judge said he did not want to see a certain attorney in his courtroom ever again.
David M. Glenn, an attorney with the Legal Aid Bureau of Buffalo, had appeared numerous times before Buchanan without incident, the commission said.
On this occasion, Glenn told the judge that his client would waive a hearing if he could be placed in his choice of one of two youth treatment programs that had accepted him, the commission said.
The judge asked why his client did not like the other program. Another Legal Aid client suffered a fractured wrist there, Glenn replied. Glenn said he believed the incident was being investigated but did not know what, if any, action the bureau had taken over the matter, the commission said.
The judge then said, “But what you also are telling me is that Legal Aid Bureau has taken the position that one of their clients was injured … and has taken no action on behalf of their client,” according to the commission.
Glenn protested he did not say that.
Buchanan “shouted at Mr. Glenn in a loud and angry voice and interrupted Mr. Glenn’s attempts to explain his position,” the commission said.
Buchanan later told the bureau’s executive director that he would recuse himself in any case in which Glenn appeared as counsel.
In Chautauqua County in September 2010, Buchanan did not allow a lawyer or a law guardian to cross-examine a witness in a visitation and custody hearing.
Buchanan said he did not see the need for cross-examination because the petitioner did not meet his burden of proof, and then he interrupted the law guardian’s attempt to make a record that he had not been allowed to question the witness or have his client heard by the court, the commission said.
Not only was Buchanan rude to the guardian, the judge prevented the attorney from exercising his rights, the commission said.
The judge “conducted an abbreviated hearing that deprived the parties of a full right to be heard and created an appearance that he engineered the result,” the commission said.
Buchanan “has acknowledged that his actions were inconsistent with the ethical standards and the procedures required by law, and has pledged to conduct himself in accordance with the rules in the future,” the commission said.
“The judge fully cooperated with the commission,” said Sullivan, Buchanan’s attorney. “He’s had a long and distinguished career as a Family Court judge.”
As for Buchanan’s rudeness, “those were relatively minor charges that he didn’t dispute,” Sullivan said.
“The number of cases a Family Court judge handles is astronomical,” Sullivan said. “He’s been on the bench for a long time without any previous complaints and incidents.”