The Suffolk judge accused of texting prosecutors from the bench to advise them on how to handle cases was reassigned Tuesday to a small claims court.
District Court Judge Janine Barbera-Dalli, who oversaw a court handling cases related to human trafficking, sent text messages to prosecutors last week and the week before, shortly before a trial was to begin in Central Islip for a defendant charged with heroin possession and loitering. Prosecutors disclosed the texts to defense attorney Juliann Ryan of Legal Aid Society, who then asked Barbera-Dalli to recuse herself. The judge did so.
But Barbera-Dalli, elected in 2012, drew widespread condemnation from lawyers and legal ethicists for her behavior, which included advising prosecutors on how to get Legal Aid removed from this case. Communicating privately with only one side in a case is a violation of legal and judicial ethics.
In a one-sentence letter, Suffolk Administrative Judge C. Randall Hinrichs advised Legal Aid, the district attorney’s office and others that he had taken action.
“In light of information received from the Suffolk County Legal Aid Society and the Suffolk County district attorney’s office, Judge Janine Barbera-Dalli has been reassigned to a district court civil part,” Hinrichs wrote in the letter.
In her new role, she will handle small claims, landlord-tenant disputes and violations of municipal codes.
Her attorney suggested she had been misunderstood.
“Judge Barbera-Dalli has spent years handling some of Suffolk County’s toughest and most heart-wrenching cases as the principal judge in all matters regarding human trafficking,” said her lawyer, Clifford Robert of Uniondale. “Her work has been widely regarded and has made a meaningful difference in hundreds of lives. Judge Barbera-Dalli welcomes the review by the court system so that she can clear her name.”
Laurette Mulry, executive director of the Suffolk Legal Aid Society, said she was glad Barbera-Dalli no longer will handle criminal cases. “I’m happy that he [Hinrichs] is addressing it,” she said.
Mulry last week asked the district attorney’s office to search prosecutors’ cellphones and to disclose any other texts from the judge. She said she has not yet received a response to that request, but is hopeful she’ll get one.
“I think they are probably, hopefully, doing their due diligence,” Mulry said.
The district attorney’s office declined to comment.
Christopher Brocato, president of the Suffolk County Criminal Bar Association, praised the transfer.
“I just didn’t see how any defendant coming before her couldn’t be sure that she hadn’t made up her mind on a case,” Brocato said, noting that Legal Aid, which represents indigent clients, is the largest provider of legal services to defendants in criminal cases. “It was going to be hard for her to sit on any Legal Aid case.”
The judge’s texts were sent to a victim’s advocate from the human trafficking court and to three prosecutors, Ryan said. In the texts, Barbera-Dalli called Ryan’s client a “trafficker” and asked why he wasn’t charged as a trafficker.
Acting District Attorney Emily Constant last week said Barbera-Dalli should be referred to the state Commission on Judicial Conduct, which can discipline or remove judges. The commission’s deliberations remain secret unless it takes action.