The New York Law Journal by Mark Fass - August 12, 2010
A Suffolk County judge who was the subject of a searing complaint by a children's advocacy group has been transferred from Family Court to the County Court's civil term. A court source called the immediate transfer "unprecedented" and an indication of the how seriously the allegations are being taken by the Office of Court Administration. According to the complaint, Judge Andrew G. Tarantino Jr. granted a father who had been convicted of possessing child pornography and third-degree rape of a minor overnight visitation of his three children, supervised by his own parents. During the visitation hearing in January, Judge Tarantino joked about child pornography, misstated the facts of the case, refused to hear expert testimony regarding sexual-abuse recidivism and maintained an "inappropriate" relationship with the father's attorney, according to the complaint. The complaint was filed Tuesday with the New York State Commission on Judicial Conduct by Parents for Megan's Law and the Crime Victims Center, a Long Island advocacy group. It was also forwarded to the OCA, which is independent from the commission. The OCA transferred the judge out of Family Court on Monday, based on the allegations underlying the complaint. A spokesman for the OCA said he could not discuss the grounds for transferring judges and that the court system could take no further remedial action. "This is a matter for the Commission on Judicial Conduct," spokesman David Bookstaver said. "The courts by statute cannot discipline or punish judges." Robert Tembeckjian, the conduct commission's chief administrator, said he could not comment unless and until a sanction is issued or a judge waives confidentiality. Judge Tarantino, 57, declined to comment.
The complaint against the judge alleges numerous instances of bias and inappropriate comments during a child custody proceeding earlier this year. The judge held a four-day hearing in January and issued an eight-page decision in April. The father, Dennis DeMille, a former middle-school teacher, is a registered Level II sex offender. He pleaded guilty to possessing pornographic photographs of 12- to 16-year-old girls, and sexually victimizing a minor. The children's mother, who is not named in court records, had contacted the Parents for Megan's Law in November 2009 to complain about the judge's behavior.
The group in its complaint said "Judge Tarantino has exhibited a bias and a blatant disregard for the facts." The complaint cited such examples as the judge's joke that, to get around a law that prohibits replicating child pornography for court records, a court officer could "do little stick pictures" duplicating the images underlying the father's child-pornography conviction. "You can do an artist's rendition," the judge joked. Judge Tarantino asked to view the photos to determine whether they were "pieces of art or pornography," notwithstanding the father's conviction. The judge then never ruled on the issue, the complaint said. It describes the judge joking about the treatment methods for sexual addiction, asking whether "a little electronic device" might be placed in a patient's keyboard. The judge's decision to allow Mr. DeMille supervised overnight visits quoted his therapist as saying "the father is not a predator," when the therapist had declined to rule out that possibility, the complaint alleged.
The OCA rarely moves so quickly to transfer a judge, the only remedial power it holds. After Brooklyn Family Court Judge Robin Sheares jailed a mother for refusing to facilitate visits between her son and his father, a thrice-convicted rapist, OCA took three weeks to transfer her to Civil Court. Judge Tarantino forwarded through a court spokesman a corrected copy of his order in the underlying case. "This case presents with the issue of when and if a sex offender should be able to have a normal relationship with his children?" the judge wrote in Matter of D.D. III, 13176-07. "[T]he children are entitled to grow with and have as normal relationship with their Father as is possible under these circumstances. To consider sinister every activity in which there may be contact may approach paranoia in some circumstances. This court cannot render a decision based upon paranoia." Judge Tarantino was elected to Family Court in 2006 and took the bench in 2007. A 1991 graduate of City University of New York School of Law and a registered Democrat, he worked as a solo practitioner specializing in family law from 1991 to 2000 and as a partner at Long Island's Sarisohn Law Partners from 2000 to 2004. He was an assistant county attorney assigned to Suffolk Family Court from 2004 through 2006. Mark Fass can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.