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Judge Admonished in Sighing Case
 
 
A sigh isn't just a sigh in the courtroom of Nassau County Family Court Judge Richard Lawrence. There, a sigh could lead to a few nights in jail. But on Tuesday the state Commission on Judicial Conduct ruled Lawrence should be admonished for ordering a man locked up for contempt without first warning him he could be sent to jail or allowing him to say anything in his defense.

In November 2002, Mark Schulman was appearing before Lawrence on domestic violence charges lodged by his wife, Eva Schulman, and over an order by another judge giving the two joint custody of their two children.

During the proceeding, Schulman loudly sighed, fidgeted and on several occasions turned his back to the judge to retrieve personal belongings on a chair behind him.

The judge believed Schulman's conduct to be disrespectful, and in one instance, Lawrence "gazed at him silently but intently," according to the commission's ruling. Court officers had also warned Schulman to be respectful several times.

When Schulman sighed again and shook his head, Lawrence ruled him in contempt and sentenced him to five days in jail.

Schulman objected, but Lawrence cut him off and raised the sentence to 10 days. Schulman again tried to say something, but the judge upped the jail time to 12 days. Schulman was then handcuffed and arrested. Instead of going to jail, he spent one night in secure custody at the Nassau University Medical Center.

Commission spokesman Robert Tembeckjian said Schulman was taken to the hospital after complaining about chest pains.

The commission said Lawrence violated state judicial conduct rules by failing to give Schulman the proper warning about his conduct or the chance to change his behavior.

Lawrence now admits his actions were wrong and would "consider other alternatives" to resolve the situation, the commission said.

"Respondent's failure to adhere to mandated contempt procedures which he clearly knew about but disregarded constitutes misconduct warranting public discipline," the commission said. Repeatedly raising the sentence "was a gross abuse of discretion and a substantial overreaction to their efforts to protest his ruling."

Lawrence's attorney, Robert Miletsky, said that while his client respected the commission's determination, he was disappointed by the admonishment ruling.

A private letter of caution, as suggested by three of the commission's members, would have sufficed as punishment, Miletsky said.

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On the Net:

Commission on Judicial Conduct: http://www.scjc.state.ny.us

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