Combative Bronx Judge Faces Calls for Removal

Acting Supreme Court Justice Ralph Fabrizio has faced formal complaints for berating and threatening lawyers in more than a dozen incidents.

Sam Mellins and George Joseph   ·   October 6, 2023
Judge Ralph Fabrizio’s chambers in the Bronx Hall of Justice. | George Joseph for THE CITY

This article was published in partnership with THE CITY.

A notoriously combative Bronx judge is facing new calls to be reassigned after his latest confrontation with an attorney.

Acting Supreme Court Justice Ralph Fabrizio, whose reported outbursts have led to complaints from prosecutors and public defenders alike, told the attorney he was yanking her off a murder case because of her refusal to move forward with proceedings.

The attorney, Stacey Richman, said she could not take part in a scheduled pretrial hearing, claiming prosecutors had not gotten her the evidence they had against her client. Fabrizio responded, “Okay,” and initially seemed amenable to a delay.

But after officers escorted Richman’s client, an alleged Hells Angels member facing charges stemming from a 2020 shooting, into the courtroom, the judge’s tone shifted dramatically.

Citing his frustrations with the proposed delay, Fabrizio threatened to outright reject a defense motion ahead of a hearing challenging evidence in the case, and declared he was going to appoint a new attorney for the defendant, a man named Frank Tatulli.

The judge promptly failed to follow through on his threat, scheduling the hearing, which Richman served as counsel on two months later.

Fabrizio and Richman declined to comment for this story. But another attorney, representing another client in front of Fabrizio that day, said the judge acted as if Richman’s refusal was a “personal insult.”

“He started screaming at some point, and then he goes back to normal,” said the attorney, who requested anonymity to avoid retaliation. “It’s kind of creepy to watch.”

The judge’s initial order and subsequent about-face came little more than a month after he received criticism for another instance of flip-flopping. In that case, Fabrizio vacated the wrongful conviction of a man named Norberto Peets, and then suddenly reinstated it, only to vacate it again shortly after receiving press inquiries from THE CITY.

“You know something? You are relieved. These are orders. These aren’t suggestions.”

—Acting Supreme Court Justice Ralph Fabrizio

Oded Oren, a former public defender and founder of judicial accountability organization Scrutinize, said the latest episode called for action to be taken against the judge.

“Judge Fabrizio’s conduct — specifically, his threat to deny a person’s right to a constitutional hearing based on a scheduling conflict — exemplifies yet again that he is not fit to be a judge. [The court system] has removed and demoted judges for far less egregious conduct; it is time they do the same with Judge Fabrizio.”

Fabrizio has faced multiple formal complaints for allegedly berating and threatening prosecutors and defense attorneys in more than a dozen incidents going back to 2008.

Despite these complaints, court administrators have kept the judge in his position presiding over felony cases in The Bronx. Fabrizio has a reputation for pushing cases forward in a courthouse notorious for delays and dysfunction.

Not all judges receive such leniency. In April, as THE CITY previously reported, court administrators quietly pushed another Bronx judge, Naita Semaj-Williams, out of criminal court, after she received a barrage of negative press for releasing a defendant facing manslaughter charges before his trial and discrediting the testimony of a police officer in a high-profile case involving a local rapper.

Judge Joseph Zayas, New York’s recently appointed chief administrative judge who oversees day-to-day court system operations, declined to comment.

The June hearing in which Fabrizio ripped into Richman started off like most felony cases in Bronx Supreme Court, quiet and half-empty, according to two people who were there.

Before the defendant was shuffled into the courtroom in handcuffs, Fabrizio sounded sympathetic to Richman’s claim that the case could not move forward because prosecutors had not provided her with the discovery evidence she requested, which they are legally required to supply.

“I don’t want to prejudice Mr. Tatulli’s rights to have his attorney have all of that discovery,” the judge declared, according to the hearing transcript.

But after Tatulli entered the courtroom and Richman repeated her argument, Fabrizio complained at length about delays in the case. He then threatened to shoot down a defense motion about what evidence would be allowed into the case without looking into its merits.

“Or maybe I will just deny the motion summarily to suppress because the defense is not prepared to go forward,” said the judge.

Richman stuck to her guns. She needed the discovery materials “to properly represent” her client, she said — a response that sent Fabrizio over the edge.

“You know something? You are relieved,” Fabrizio announced, claiming he was going to assign another attorney to the case. “These are orders. These aren’t suggestions.”

The dramatic order stunned observers in the courtroom.

“The courtroom went dead silent and everyone was looking at each other in disbelief,” recalled a social worker, who was there on another case with Fabrizio and spoke on the condition of anonymity.

But after issuing this order, the judge appeared to almost immediately drop it, according to the transcript, scheduling a date for the pretrial hearing regarding the admissibility of evidence in the case, which Richman then served as the attorney for in August.

“Step out. That’s the adjourned date. That’s the adjourned date. Put the defendant in. We are done,” Fabrizio said.

Richman gathered her files and walked out of the courtroom, recalled the attorney, who was present that day for another case.

“She wasn’t acting scared,” said the attorney. “She was just like, ‘It is what it is.’”

The front of the Bronx County Hall of Justice
The entrance to the Bronx's courthouse. | Christopher Le

New York’s rules for judicial conduct hold that judges must “be patient, dignified and courteous to litigants” and “accord to every person who has a legal interest in a proceeding, or that person’s lawyer, the right to be heard according to law.”

But over the years, attorneys have repeatedly accused Fabrizio of violating these rules to little avail.

In 2020, for example, a Bronx prosecutor filed a complaint about Fabrizio with the state’s Commission on Judicial Conduct. Citing 14 separate courtroom incidents, the complaint alleged the judge “had a long-standing pattern of verbally abusive toward litigants, routinely attacking people’s character and integrity and threatening attorneys with contempt and jail.”

One unnamed prosecutor in the complaint alleged that Fabrizio threatened to hold them in contempt of court over a clerical error that was the fault of support staff. A second female prosecutor, who subsequently left the Bronx District Attorney’s Office, accused the judge of chewing her out in a 45-minute tirade for a plea deal that she had not even crafted.

“There’s a culture of some abusive male judges getting away with whatever they want,” the former prosecutor previously told THE CITY.

In response to the complaint, the New York Commission on Judicial Conduct did not take any public disciplinary action against Fabrizio.

Fabrizio was first appointed to the bench by former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani in 2001. When he was last up for reappointment in 2018, criminal defense attorney Alice Fontier submitted a complaint about his behavior to a mayoral committee responsible for screening judge nominations, and asked that he not be given another term. But despite her complaint, former Mayor Bill de Blasio reappointed him for a 10-year term.

“Attorneys have to walk on eggshells. He is prone to being erratic and his rulings seem to depend more on his mood than anything else,” said Fontier, who was working in the Bronx courts at the time.

Sam Mellins is senior reporter at New York Focus, which he has been a part of since launch day. His reporting has also appeared in The San Francisco Chronicle, The Intercept, THE CITY, and The Nation. 
George is a senior reporter for THE CITY with a focus on criminal justice and courts. He previously worked for WNYC and Gothamist, and has published stories with NPR, ProPublica, Esquire, and The Intercept among other outlets.
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