THE bizarre extortion scandal involving New York's leading state judge represents both a personal tragedy for the families involved and a further blow to public trust in America's law enforcement institutions.
Released without bail and ordered to his Long Island home, Judge Sol Wachtler resigned Nov. 10 as chief judge of the state appeals court. It is a post in which he also presided over the entire state court system.
A highly respected jurist known for his charm, wit, and oratorical skill, Mr. Wachtler is a prominent liberal Republican. He often was mentioned as a possible New York gubernatorial candidate or US Supreme Court justice.
In a saga that reads more like a soap opera than real life, the judge, a long-married father of four, is accused of making anonymous blackmail threats by phone and letter since April to socialite Joy Silverman, his former mistress and a top Republican fund-raiser and contributor.
A step-cousin of his wife who was once nominated as US ambassador to Barbados, Ms. Silverman reportedly had broken off the relationship with Judge Wachtler a year ago.
One demand allegedly made by the judge was for a $20,000 payment in exchange for compromising photos of Ms. Silverman and her current companion and a threat to kidnap her teenage daughter if the payment were not made.
Though criticized for assigning as many as 80 agents to the case, the Federal Bureau of Investigation has been widely applauded here for the careful track work that finally led to the judge's arrest last weekend. The FBI took the case on in September after Ms. Silverman, an acquaintance of FBI chief William Sessions, took her complaint directly to him.
Charles Stillman, Wachtler's lawyer, has insisted that the charges against his client have no relationship to his role on the court.
"Some things can't be predicted, and I think this case has to be seen as unique," comments New York University law professor Stephen Gillars. He notes that, as a reform move, New York in the early 1980s began to appoint rather than elect appeals-court judges.
"Unless you know how to predict human behavior, I don't see how we could have a better system," Professor Gillars says.
Yet judges have long been held to a higher public standard, in both private and official conduct, than most professionals, says George Kuhlman, counsel to the American Bar Association's Center for Professional Responsibility.
"Judges have been disciplined even for being seen publicly going on weekend vacations with their mistresses," he says. "If the public sees that judges seem to think that laws are fine for people who come before them but need not necessarily be enforced for themselves, that clearly sends a very bad signal. It tends to undermine the sense the public should have that justice is administered fairly...."