A judge castigates the prison guards’ union

This week, Bronx Supreme Court Justice George Villegas made a grave charge when he declared that on two consecutive days last month “our system of justice was under attack by outside forces.”

These words were part of a tongue-lashing Judge Villegas aimed at the Correction Officers Benevolent Association. It stems from a job action that appears to have been called to prevent a prisoner from testifying against two Rikers guards charged with beating him and then covering it up.

The prison guards on trial are Kevin Gilkes and Louis Pinto. The judge is angry because last month the man the guards are accused of beating up failed to make it to court in time for his scheduled testimony. The reason is union boss Norman Seabrook called prison-bus drivers out on a work stoppage. The judge says he will not allow the judicial system to be held “hostage” to this kind of attack — and threatened action should anything similar happen again.

In the meantime, city lawyers have filed suit against the union, saying Seabrook’s action was an “illegal” strike under the Taylor Law. They are asking a judge to fine the union as much as $1 million a day for any future work stoppages such as this one.

That’s good, but it doesn’t go nearly far enough. If Seabrook did indeed call his union out on strike to affect the outcome of a criminal trial, we fail to see how that is materially different from the many other ways criminals prevent people from showing up to testify. In fact, given that correction officers are part of our justice system, it makes their action far worse.

If Seabrook & Co. aren’t sanctioned for what they have already pulled, what’s to stop any public-sector union from doing the same in the future to affect a trial of one of their members? New York simply cannot afford a “one free strike” principle in an area as vital as criminal justice.

Judge Villegas is spot on about the assault on his courtroom last month. Pity it appears no one will pay a price for it.

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