Longtime Princetown town justice Michelle Van Woeart has been censured by a state panel, finding she failed to properly handle tickets issued to her and her sons for dog control ordinance violations.
The New York State Commission on Judicial Conduct issued the censure in a ruling issued last week. The finding is a step above the lowest level determination — admonition — but a step below the highest level — removal.
The censure also comes as Princetown Town Board members seek a clarification on an earlier advisory opinion that found that Van Woeart could continue to hold both the town justice post and court clerk job, provided certain conditions were met.
The commission finding relates to tickets issued to Van Woeart and her two adult sons concerning dogs connected to them roaming in their Princetown neighborhood.
Tickets were issued to her sons in September 2009, and all three in October 2009. Three years earlier, tickets were issued to her and one of her sons related to the same issue.
The commission found fault in both cases.
In the 2006 case, the animal control officer did not file a formal accusatory instrument. But Van Woeart knew about the tickets and didn’t request them moved to a different court. She also failed to keep records of the tickets, the commission found.
In the 2009 cases, formal accusatory instruments were signed and Van Woeart did request the cases be moved out of her court. But she didn’t make that request until six weeks after the accusatory instruments were signed, the commission found.
Van Woeart should have sent the cases on to a different court immediately upon learning about the cases, the commission found.
“Even if she believed that no charges were pending in the absence of an accusatory instrument, allowing tickets issued to her and her children to languish in her court created an appearance of impropriety and should have been avoided,” the commission wrote.
Van Woeart then compounded the misconduct by making inappropriate comments in a letter to the new judge on the case.
She identified the defendants as her sons, explained why she believed the service of the tickets was defective and wrote she was hopeful to have her name removed as the dog was registered to her son.
All that, the commission wrote, “could be viewed as an attempt to assert her judicial office and influence the judges who would be deciding the matters. Such conduct is inconsistent with well-established ethical principles.”
Van Woeart ultimately received a six-month adjournment in contemplation of dismissal in the 2009 case from Scotia Village Court.
The commission also found that she failed to maintain proper records in both cases.
Six members of the commission concurred with the determination; another concurred with the sanction, but dissented with certain findings; two others dissented, finding further information was needed to determine the appropriate action.
Van Woeart could not be reached for comment Friday.
The determination also noted in a footnote that the commission considers Van Woeart’s holding of both the town justice position and court clerk position as incompatible. However, the footnote also referenced an Advisory Committee on Judicial Ethics opinion that found her holding the two positions allowable, provided certain conditions were met.
Town supervisor Matt Joyce said members of the Town Board remain concerned that Van Woeart holds both positions and are now seeking clarification on the opinion from the Attorney General’s office and from the Comptroller’s office.
Joyce said the censure highlights those concerns.
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