Brooklyn Surrogate’s Court Judge Harriet L. Thompson has taken legal action for reinstatement to the bench after she was barred from handling cases. 

Judge Thompson filed an Article 78 petition on April 14 against the state Office of Court Administration (OCA) in Brooklyn Supreme Court, which challenges what she alleges was an “illegal suspension” in December. Surrogate’s Court handles matters related to the wills and estates of Brooklynites.

Judge Harriet L. Thompson
Judge Harriet L. Thompson. Photo: Provided.

Thompson, who is Black, filed a separate complaint with the state Court of Claims in March that accuses OCA and court officials of additional wrongdoing, including racial discrimination and retaliation for whistleblowing.

The turmoil involves Thompson, who was elected to the court in January 2019, barring former Surrogate’s Court Public Administrator Richard Buckheit from working on her cases after accusing him of unlawful and unethical conduct. 

Court officials launched an ongoing probe of Thompson and appointed Justice Carol R. Edmead to manage her caseload. 

“What we’re seeking in this new action is for them to restore Judge Thompson to the court,” Thompson’s attorney Matthew L. Berman told BK Reader. “We assert that OCA and its administrators do not have the legal power to suspend Judge Thompson or the authority to replace her.”

State court officials see things differently.

In a statement to BK Reader, NYS Unified Court System spokesperson Lucian Chalfen said, “This case isn’t about racial bias, corruption, being a whistleblower or anything else alleged in her filing. It is about serious misconduct on her part raising troubling questions regarding her fitness to sit on the bench.”

Chalfen denied that state officials banished Thompson from the bench.

“Judge Thompson hasn’t been removed or suspended; we have reassigned her cases. She remains on payroll and is being paid,” Chalfen stated.

In response to Chalfen’s statement, Berman said court officials are playing with semantics, that is, taking actions to suspend the judge without calling it a suspension. 

“By using words other than ‘suspension,’ they’ve admitted that they don’t have the authority to discipline judges. They’re going to say we didn’t discipline her, but that’s exactly what happened. They’re just putting a different word on it,” Berman stated.

Judge Harriet L. Thompson
Judge Harriet L. Thompson. Photo: Provided.

Court officials had relieved Thompson of her duties on December 17, 2021, following an inspector general investigation, The New York Daily News reported. 

The preliminary probe found “serious allegations of bias and discrimination” against Thompson, and the case was turned over to the State Commission on Judicial Conduct for further action. In addition to being relieved of her probate cases, court officials also barred Thompson from entering non-public areas of the downtown Brooklyn courthouse.

Before that, Thompson and Buckheit, who was a city official responsible for managing estate cases without wills or heirs for the Surrogate’s Court, were locked in a legal skirmish

Thompson, one of only two judges on the court, had accused Buckheit of exclusively hiring young white men and suspended him in 2020 from handling her cases, which led to a frustrating bottleneck in workflow on the court. 

Buckheit also faced turmoil and scandle in his office. In January 2021, staff members publicly called for him to resign, accusing Buckheith of creating a toxic workplace that included discrimination and bullying. In another public blemish, Fitzroy Thompson, a case manager in Buckheit’s office, pleaded guilty in 2019 to second-degree grand larceny involving the theft of debit and credit card info from people who had recently died.

Ultimately, Buckheit resigned from his post in February, denying Thompson’s allegations against him and accusing her of homophobia.

Thompson alleges that her suspension was retaliation for whistleblowing of Buckheit. According to Berman, court officials failed in their probe of Thompson to provide an opportunity to see the evidence and to confront witnesses against her.

“If she was retaliated against and suspended, that violates her constitutional rights because you have a right to due process under the law,” Berman stated. “And due process means that you have the right to notice and an opportunity to be heard.”

Nigel Roberts

Nigel Roberts is a New York-based, award-winning freelance journalist. During his career, Nigel has written for several newspapers and magazines. He has extensive experience covering politics and was a...

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  1. I too know a victim of Mr. Buckheits Office. The Hon. Thompson was handling a case and made an “Order & Decision” on a case. But the Public Administrator failed to comply to the “ORDER” of Hon. Thompson made on a case. April 18, 2019 and her Decision made May 17, 2019. The Attorney for the Public administrator failed to uphold the Order given in a Transcript dated April 18, 2019. Under 2008-2090/L that was combining a case before Judge Thompson.. it has been blocked being permitted or submit it before Hon. Thompson.

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