Editorial: Strange court incident involving attorneys ends

  • Northampton-First Assistant District Attorney Steven Gagne. Dave Roback / The Republican)

Published: 3/23/2019 12:14:28 AM

An unusual case appears to have wrapped up inside the halls of the Hampshire County Courthouse this month, and it doesn’t involve plaintiffs or defendants but rather two attorneys who represent them.

The “case” began early last month when First Assistant District Attorney Steven Gagne — the second in command at the Northwestern district attorney’s office behind District Attorney David Sullivan — sent a letter to the court about threatening comments allegedly made against a Northampton police officer by defense attorney Dana Goldblatt.

In that letter, Gagne questioned whether Goldblatt should participate in cases involving a Northampton police officer, Andrew Kohl, after she was overheard allegedly saying that she either “wanted to kill” or would “like to kill” the officer who arrested one of her clients. Goldblatt denied making the alleged statements.

A month later, presumably after pressure mounted against Gagne from within the legal community, the first district attorney issued a mea culpa, apologizing to Goldblatt for the “unnecessary and avoidable harm” his letter to Judge Maureen Walsh caused.

“I also apologize for the statements in my letter that were or could have been deemed to be an accusation that you threatened Officer Kohl,” Gagne wrote to the court, asking that his letter be withdrawn. “It is clear you did not threaten Officer Kohl.”

It’s a positive development that Goldblatt accepted Gagne’s apology and both sides are ready to put the matter behind them.

But a lot is left unsaid about how, in the span of a week in late February and early March, Gagne and his boss, Sullivan, did an about-face.

In a Feb. 26 story in the Gazette, Sullivan defended Gagne’s actions, saying that the original written complaint did not violate any Rules of Professional Conduct. “It was our obligation to file such a complaint with court authorities as ignoring them would be tantamount to condoning such conduct,” he wrote.

Then in a March 8 story detailing Gagne’s apology, Sullivan said that Gagne’s letter was “not measured” and outlined several steps his office is taking to address the issue and keep it from happening again.

Assuming the alleged statements were overheard by an assistant district attorney and two court officers, as Gagne originally claimed, then he did the right thing by raising this issue before the court, given the seriousness of the allegations.

Threats made against police officers, or anyone, need to be brought to the attention of authorities and investigated. These investigations happen in work places, in schools and elsewhere in society, and it’s right that they should also occur in our courts of law.

Gagne erred, however, in how he raised the issue. The letter was a form of ex parte communication because Goldblatt was not included in the original correspondence.

Goldblatt should have been copied, and the Hampshire County Bar Advocate program should have been brought in to address the issue in private, as Gagne pointed out.

Goldblatt is also not free of criticism. She described police officers as “violence workers” at a Northampton City Council meeting as members debated whether to accept a donation of ammunition from Walmart. Such language is unnecessary and can only serve to fan flames. We urge her to tone down such rhetoric.

That said, Goldblatt has a right to raise questions about police actions without fear of retaliation.

In the end, having a controversy such as this go public is not a bad thing. The DA’s office is taking positive steps aimed at ensuring the situation doesn’t happen again. Among those include ethics training and the establishment of an ethics panel to review complaints against DA employees and defense attorneys.


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