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Commentary: What did Judge Rosenbaum do? We can only guess.


The allegations against former state Supreme Court Justice Matthew Rosenbaum leave a lot to the imagination.

Briefly outlined in his agreement with a state judicial watchdog agency, the allegations are that Rosenbaum “made improper and at times abusive personal demands of court staff, directly or indirectly conveying that continued employment required submitting to such demands, and creating a hostile workplace environment” during his entire time on the bench from 2005 to 2019.

Fourteen years of improper and abusive personal demands of staff? What does that mean? Was he some sort of sadistic cross between Franklin Hart Jr. from “9 to 5” and Miranda Priestly of “The Devil Wears Prada?” 

What exactly did Rosenbaum do that was so egregious to warrant his being stripped of his judicial duties within weeks of his being re-elected to a second 14-year term and him subsequently vacating his office?

The taxpayers who paid his $210,900 salary deserve to know. But no one who is in the know is saying. That was part of his agreement with the state Commission on Judicial Conduct. He affirmed that he resigned in exchange for the commission closing the case against him.

Rosenbaum knows how to keep things under wraps. Recall that he sealed a civil lawsuit accusing his fellow Republican, the late and corrupt Assembly member Bill Nojay, of embezzling $1 million from a longtime friend, ensuring there was no public record of the case.

Rosenbaum’s alleged victim, who has been identified by court officials as a woman, has not spoken out publicly.

So, the best taxpayers can do to piece together the extent of Rosenbaum’s alleged harassment is to deduce what Rosenbaum didn’t do by examining the only two other cases in which the commission disciplined judges for making improper demands of staff.

The first involved Monroe County Family Court Judge Dandrea Ruhlman. Over the course of eight months in 2004, Ruhlman had her secretary babysit her young children in her chambers, take them to doctor’s appointments, drop them off at daycare, and type her husband’s resume and job applications.

The second involved a state Supreme Court justice from The Bronx. In that case, Justice Mary Brigantti-Hughes had her court attorney chauffeur and babysit her children, and pressured her staff to pray with her and attend religious services. These episodes occurred occasionally over the course of five years, from 2006 to 2011.

In both cases the judges were censured. That’s the penalty the commission imposes on judges who make excessive personal demands of their staff — a public finger-wagging.

If Rosenbaum’s alleged harassment was in the vein of ordering his staff to shuttle his children around or pick up his dry-cleaning, he could have expected the same and went about his second term.

But his conduct was apparently so egregious that the commission accepted his resignation and promise to never return to the bench, without even substantiating the accusation against him.

Under state judiciary law, the commission has 120 days from the time a judge resigns to conclude its case against him or her.

That’s an unrealistic timeline. Commission investigations typically take at least six months, with some taking years. The commission’s probe of former Rochester City Court Judge Leticia Astacio took two years to complete.

Robert Tembeckjian, the administrator of the commission, said the 120-day clock started when Rosenbaum refused to take the oath of office on January 1.

“Because this stipulation achieved the most we could get under the law, that really compelled us to end it quickly, get him off the bench, stop the salary, and get him to pledge to never come back,” Tembekjian said. “This stipulation accomplishes the most we could get in the ordinary course of time.

“But I realize that it’s frustrating that we don’t have the kind of records that we had in the Astacio case,” he continued. “All of the things that frustrated people about the Astacio inquiry were abbreviated in this case involving Rosenbaum. But neither system is perfect. There’s a trade-off no matter which way you go.”

There is another, ongoing investigation into Rosenbaum separate from the one closed by the commission. That probe is being done by the inspector general of the Office of Court Administration, which runs the state court system.

But, as OCA spokesperson Lucian Chalfen explained, the findings of that investigation are for internal purposes and not made public. The only way they could come out is if they were potentially criminal and the inspector general turned them over to the local district attorney. That hasn’t happened.

There are several places court employees in New York can turn to complain about their work environment, depending on the nature of their grievance.

They can approach the court system’s Work-Safe Office or Office of Workplace Diversity. They can file a report with the OCA’s inspector general. The most obvious outlet is the human resources representative in their local district administrative office.

We don’t know if any of those things happened in Rosenbaum's case; and even though we should, we probably never will. We likely won’t know if some local or state administrator shrugged off the alleged victim’s complaint years ago. Even if the OCA inspector general finds that was the case, it’ll be handled internally.

All we know for sure is Rosenbaum didn’t just ask his alleged victim to pick up his dry-cleaning and cart his kids around.

David Andreatta is CITY’s editor. He can be reached at