The chief judge of New York state, facing charges he blackmailed his former lover, resigned from the bench Tuesday shortly after a federal magistrate ordered him to wear an electronic monitoring bracelet and be held under private guard in home detention as part of a bail agreement.
The case not only has caused deep shock within New York’s justice system. It also suddenly has deprived the Republican Party of perhaps its strongest potential gubernatorial candidate and, in exposing the alleged secret life of a pillar of the judiciary, focused new attention in New York’s tabloids and elsewhere on a high profile case of sexual harassment.
At one point during a hearing Tuesday in Manhattan federal court, Judge Sol Wachtler blinked back tears as magistrate Sharon E. Grubin addressed him personally.
“Chief Judge Wachtler, if my decision in releasing you reflects in a small amount the wisdom you have shown us during your years on the bench, we will have done all right,” she said in a courtroom jammed with reporters.
Under the terms of the agreement between defense lawyers and prosecutors, Wachtler, the chief judge of the Court of Appeals, New York’s highest tribunal, can only leave his Manhassett, N.Y., home to seek medical care or to see his lawyers.
The magistrate pointedly forbade Wachtler to have any contact with Joy Silverman, a 45-year-old New York City socialite and Republican fund-raiser who President Bush tried to appoint in 1989 as ambassador to Barbados. A Senate committee scotched the nomination, considering her too inexperienced for the diplomatic post.
Wachtler, 62, had been under suicide watch at a hospital since his arrest over the weekend. A federal complaint charged that the judge, who has been married for 41 years and has four children, instigated numerous acts of harassment against Silverman after she ended their affair a year ago.
Silverman is estranged from her industrialist husband and left Wachtler for another lawyer. The complaint accused Wachtler of threatening to kidnap Silverman’s 14-year-old daughter, and of making lewd and threatening calls--some with a device to disguise his voice.
On Tuesday, Wachtler was brought to the courthouse wearing handcuffs hidden by a raincoat. He left unshackled--but with his legal career in shambles.
Later, Charles A. Stillman, Wachtler’s attorney, issued a statement announcing his client was resigning from the bench. Stillman said that the judge wished “to prevent his situation from harming the institution he reveres and the extraordinary judges and staff who serve it.”
Wachtler’s resignation was a denouement in a made-for-tabloid television drama mixing politics, obsessive midlife attraction and court crisis.
The liberal Republican, until the weekend thought to be the strongest opponent to Gov. Mario M. Cuomo in the next gubernatorial election, sat with his shoulders slumped as Stillman and U.S. Atty. Michael Chertoff outlined their agreement for his release without bail.
The chief judge stood in strange territory--before the bench--as Grubin addressed him. “Yes, ma’am,” he answered as the magistrate outlined the terms of his confinement.
Wachtler must pay for private security guards to monitor his activities at home. He is required to keep a log of all visitors which he must present to the government daily. He must have no contact with Silverman, her daughter or any witnesses in the case.
Chertoff, the U.S. attorney in Newark, N.J., appeared in court in Manhattan in an agreement with local prosecutors. Some of the alleged phone calls to Silverman were made from New Jersey and further proceedings will take place in court in Newark.
In an affidavit, Dr. Sanford Solomon, a psychiatrist, said that Wachtler did not pose any threat to others or to himself. The psychiatrist said that the judge also “poses no risk of flight.”
“You will wear an electronic monitoring bracelet. There will be a private security service that will monitor your house,” the U.S. magistrate told Wachtler, who stood dressed conservatively in a dark suit. " . . . You agree to have no contacts with the alleged victims in the case. Do you understand?”
“Yes, I do, your honor,” the judge replied.
“If you violate any of those provisions, bail will be revoked,” Grubin lectured. “If you have any contact with witnesses, you will violate bail and be charged with obstruction of justice.”
“Yes, your honor,” Wachtler said.
As chief judge of the Court of Appeals, Wachtler had authority over all state courts and more than 5,000 other judges. He had frequently been mentioned as a possible nominee to the U.S. Supreme Court. He was elected to the appeals court in 1972 and appointed chief judge by Cuomo in 1985 for a term that would have expired in 1999. He received an annual salary of $120,000.
At one point, Grubin asked if it were really necessary for Wachtler to wear an electronic monitoring bracelet.
“The notion of Judge Wachtler being a danger to any human being is simply nonexistent,” Stillman argued.
“At this point, our motto is, ‘Better safe than sorry,’ ” Chertoff countered.
The bizarre case has still another unusual angle. The uncle of Wachtler’s wife, Joan, is Joy Silverman’s stepfather. Investigators said the family ties allowed Wachtler to carry on the affair unnoticed.
Cuomo expressed amazement at the arrest.
“I had to hear it twice. I could not believe it,” he said. “His reputation is marred even if he’s innocent. His usefulness as a public servant has been destroyed forever.”
The FBI’s investigation was launched after Silverman complained personally to FBI Director William S. Sessions that someone was threatening her.
That complaint set off a massive FBI investigation, with agents following Wachtler since Sept. 18. Silverman told the FBI that she and her daughter had received a series of threatening letters, starting in April. Some of the letters bore New Jersey postmarks.
According to court papers, Wachtler allegedly sent a card to the teen-ager containing a wrapped condom and sexually explicit references. In June, the complaint said, Silverman received a letter from Elizabeth, N.J., with allegations that its writer possessed embarrassing pictures of Wachtler’s former mistress. Later letters stated that the writer had hired a private detective to find out information about Silverman’s new boyfriend.
In August, a typed letter was delivered to one of the doormen at Silverman’s Park Avenue building, stating that listening devices had been placed in her companion’s apartment.
The next month, the doorman received another hand-delivered letter. It contained blackmail demands. In October, Silverman received a phone call on a line the FBI was tapping. Investigators said the person on the other end of the line used a mechanical device to disguise his voice. The call was traced to a pay phone near Wachtler’s home on Long Island.
In October, according to court documents, Silverman received a letter from San Antonio, ordering her to leave $20,000 in an envelope--in return for compromising photos--in the basement entrance stairway of a building near her Manhattan home.
When FBI agents traced still another call to a pay phone at Roseland, a Manhattan ballroom, they recovered a fingerprint that allegedly matched Wachtler’s.
By now, the judge was being scrutinized by teams of FBI investigators, who also monitored the mobile phone in his car. When he was arrested Saturday in his auto on the Long Island Expressway, a voice altering device was recovered.
It is not clear if Silverman ever knew Wachtler was behind the harassment, an FBI spokesman said. New reports have surfaced that Wachtler also harassed Elaine Samson--the wife of the man Silverman began a relationship with after dumping Wachtler.
Profile: SOL WACHTLER
Born: April 29, 1930
Hometown: New York City
Education: Bachelor’s degree from Washington and Lee University in 1951 and law degree in 1952. Passed the New York bar in 1956.
Career highlights: Served for four years on N.Y. State Supreme Court starting in 1968. . . . Elected to the Court of Appeals in 1972. . . . Appointed to 14-year term as chief judge by Gov. Mario M. Cuomo, in 1985. . . . Served on N.Y. State Commission on Bicentennial of U.S. Constitution. Guest lecturer at several law schools, including Yale University. As chief judge of the Court of Appeals, he presides over all state courts and more than 5,000 judges.