ALBANY—The ongoing, three-year legal tangle between Columbia County District Attorney Paul Czajka and Kinderhook Town and Village Court Justice David Dellehunt over prosecutorial discretion took a new turn last week when a state Appellate Division court called for a court hearing to get the facts on what the justices called the “grave and disturbing nature” of the DA’s conduct.
Friction between the two men appears to date back a decade or more to a newspaper article in which Mr. Dellehunt was quoted as saying that Mr. Czajka, then a county judge, had a “general lack of civility towards lawyers as well as everyone else who entered his courtroom.” Mr. Czajka referred to the statement in a court documents seeking Justice Dellehunt’s recusal in presiding over matters in Kinderhook Village and Town Court, which led up to the current case. Justice Dellehunt has said the newspaper comments attributed to him were inaccurate and told Mr. Czajka as much.
This latest legal wrangle between DA Czajka and Justice Dellehunt began in 2012 after the DA took office and moved to take over all aspects of the prosecution of all cases in town and village courts. Justice Dellehunt contended that case law does not give a district attorney unfettered power to withdraw a case after it has been filed in local criminal court and then demand that the court dismiss it.
The latest court order was issued February 19 by the State Supreme Court, Appellate Division, Third Judicial Department and deals with requests made by the DA’s Office for electronic recordings of Kinderhook Village and Town court proceedings on two dates in 2012.
The court memorandum and order issued last week points to deficiencies in the DA’s requests for the recordings, such as not following proper procedure, asking for a transcript of a town court session on an inaccurate date and most notably altering a court document without court permission.
The appeals court order also focuses on a follow-up action by the DA, who sought and was granted a court order that was to be served by fax and overnight mail by 4 p.m. on December 24, 2012. The appeals court said the faxes received by the Kinderhook Village and Town courts were different from each other. The one received by the Town Court had the handwritten word “Amended” and the handwritten phrase “as Village Justice” added to it.
Justice Dellehunt alleges, according to the court, that not all the dates and times of service met the deadline. Also, the attorney for the town did not receive the order, although that was required.
After receiving the court order for the recordings and transcripts, Justice Dellehunt asked for an adjournment to prepare a response, but the state Supreme Court denied his request and on December 26, 2012 issued a written decision granting the DA’s petition and directing Justice Dellehunt to transmit the requested records.
But that order was overruled in February 2013, when the Supreme Court granted a motion by Justice Dellehunt and dismissed a suit by the DA to obtain the court records.
Further appeals followed.
While the court concluded that the DA’s service of the documents ordering the release of the transcripts was “defective,” the justices also took issue with the amended documents that were altered without required court authorization.
The appeals court wrote that “…although [the DA] acknowledges in his brief that he served the altered documents, he does not specifically admit or deny that he made the alterations. By adopting the passive voice, he further avoids either fully accepting or attributing responsibility for performing the underlying actions,” the court wrote.
In Justice Dellehunt’s appeal, he contends that sanctions should be imposed on the DA for “frivolous conduct” and he should be ordered to reimburse Justice Dellehunt for expenses and legal fees, the court wrote. The justice alleged that the DA commenced his court actions “as the culmination of a pattern of harassment” that targeted Justice Dellehunt and began months earlier after a disagreement with the DA as to the scope of the DA’s prosecutorial authority.
The DA requested that Justice Dellehunt not preside over any criminal and vehicle and traffic matters in Columbia County and the DA filed more than 100 motions seeking the justice’s recusal. Judge Dellehunt said that interfered with the operation of the Town and Village courts over which he presided.
Justice Dellehunt alleged that by altering the document requiring the transcripts the DA caused the Village of Kinderhook to believe that Justice Dellehunt had been “properly” named as a party in the court action, which resulted in the village spending about $15,000 to pick up part of the justice’s defense costs, according to the court memorandum.
The court wrote that “given the delayed nature of the [DA’s] acknowledgement that the documents were altered, the grave and disturbing nature of such conduct, and the lack of factual findings in Supreme Court relative to all of the other circumstances [Justice Dellehunt] has alleged constitute a pattern of frivolous and harassing conduct, we conclude that further factual development will be helpful.”
The Appellate Court remitted the matter of sanctions to the Supreme Court to conduct a hearing to get the facts about the DA’s conduct and the surrounding circumstances.
After reviewing the Appellate Division decision DA Czajka said he accepts “full responsibility for the circumstances described” in the decision.
In his prepared statement the DA said that though he had “delegated the preparation of the papers to another and although I had no personal knowledge of the ‘amended petition’ until much too late, I recognize that I am not relieved of responsibility as an institutional matter.”
Additionally, he noted that when he saw the amended document, he asked State Police to retain it for safekeeping. He also asked his attorney, Professor Michael Hutter, to communicate with Attorney David Rowley, representing Kinderhook officials, “in the hope of resolving these issues without further delay.”
The DA told The Columbia Paper this week that Attorney Hutter, also an Albany Law School professor, represents his office and that he is voluntarily handling the case because he finds the issue “interesting.”
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