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Erie County Supreme Court Justice Panepinto censured for misconduct

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Erie County Supreme Court Justice Catherine Nugent Panepinto has been censured by the state's Commission on Judicial Conductafter admitting to "numerous violations" related to her public support of Buffalo Public Schools teachers in litigation against the School Board.

The Commission is an independent state agency charged with investigating allegations of judicial misconduct against New York state, county, town and village judges. It said the original complaint was made in January.

The complaint alleged Panepinto made repeated public comments, assisted in providing legal advice, signed advocacy letters, executed an affidavit filed in Supreme Court and spoke with School Board members in support of a lawsuit by the Buffalo Teachers Federation in early 2018. The BTF's lawsuit aimed to stop the district from assigning supervisory and non-instructional duties to teachers at City Honors High School, where Panepinto's daughter attended in 2017-2018.

"Respondent avers, and the Commission Administrator has no evidence to the contrary, that respondent’s conduct in this matter was guided solely by her desire to affect the best interests of her child," said the Commission in its decision to censure. "Respondent acknowledges that, notwithstanding this intention, the scope of her conduct exceeded ethical limitations placed upon her as a member of the judiciary."

However, the Commission disagreed that the judge's actions during the three-month period were solely to benefit her daughter's education. It said Panepinto improperly "invoked the prestige of her office" in support of teachers, despite rules prohibiting "a judge from commenting on a pending or impending case in any court in the United States" unless a litigant, and "undermined public confidence in the integrity and impartiality of the judiciary."

The Commission said Panepinto was "cooperative" throughout the inquiry, "regrets her failure to abide by the Rules in this matter" and pledged "to conduct herself in accordance with the Rules for the remainder of her tenure as a judge."

Panepinto has been a justice since 2011 and her term expires at the end of 2024. She could have faced stiffer penalties, including the loss of her job.

Earlier this month, her husband, former state Sen. Marc Panepinto, was suspended from practicing law for one year. The suspension was related to the sexual misconduct toward a former female staffer he was convicted of in 2018.

It is also interesting that Marc Panepinto replaced Mark Grisanti in the Senate. Grisanti's current position as a Supreme Court judge is in jeopardy after a video of him arguing with and pushing a Buffalo Police officer went viral. The Erie County District Attorney's Office declined to charge Grisanti, but the Commission is said to be investigating.

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