By Joseph Ax
NEW YORK (Reuters) - A U.S. appeals court froze court-ordered reforms to the New York City Police Department's stop-and-frisk program and removed the judge who found the police tactic unconstitutional, saying she "ran afoul" of the judicial code of conduct.
The 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruling was at least a temporary victory for Mayor Michael Bloomberg and the NYPD, who have argued that stopping, questioning and frisking suspicious people has led to a steep decline in crime rates.
The three-judge panel's ruling had no implications for the merits of the case and instead was a rebuke of U.S. District Judge Shira Scheindlin. The judges faulted Scheindlin for failing to appear impartial in public statements and media interviews in which she answered critics of her ruling.
Just two months ago, Scheindlin became a hero of civil rights and civil liberties groups when she struck down parts of stop-and-frisk, ruling that it amounted to "indirect racial profiling" that resulted in the disproportionate and discriminatory stopping of blacks and Hispanics. She also ordered a federal monitor to oversee changes to NYPD practices.
New York police will be allowed to revert to previous stop-and-frisk tactics at least until March, when the same three-judge panel will hear the city's appeal of Scheindlin's ruling. The appeals court could still uphold Scheindlin's decision, but she would no longer have any role in the case.
The court's removal of Scheindlin was an exceedingly rare action and an indication of how displeased the judges were with her.
The city and the NYPD welcomed the decision, having previously said they failed to receive a fair hearing from Scheindlin.
"We could not be more pleased with the court's findings," said Corporation Counsel Michael Cardozo, the city's chief attorney, who called Scheindlin's ruling "unjustified and deeply problematic."
The case "will now receive a fresh and independent look both by the appeals court and then, if necessary, by a different trial court judge," Cardozo said.
Scheindlin's ruling in August resulted from a pair of lawsuits brought by the New York Civil Liberties Union and the Center for Constitutional Rights, and it was widely celebrated by racial minorities who complained innocent people were being caught up in the police sweeps.
It also played a role in the campaign for mayor of New York City in which candidate Bill de Blasio, who won the Democratic nomination and became the front-runner for next Tuesday's election, blasted stop-and-frisk as unfair.
The New York Civil Liberties Union said it would appeal the ruling, and the Center for Constitutional Rights called the reassigning of the case "troubling and unprecedented."
De Blasio has said stop-and-frisk was evidence of "two New Yorks" - one for the privileged elite and another for the poor and disadvantaged. He issued a statement saying he was "extremely disappointed in today's decision."
The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) said New York voters gave their judgment by supporting de Blasio, who won a hotly contested primary and holds a 40-point lead in public opinion polls over his Republican rival, Joe Lhota.
The winner will replace Bloomberg on January 1.
"Stop-and-frisk policing is nothing less than the largest racial profiling program in the country, and Judge Scheindlin was right to rule it unconstitutional," NAACP President Benjamin Jealous said in a statement.
New York Police Commissioner Ray Kelly said he now expects a "fair and impartial review of this case" when the appeals court reviews Scheindlin's stop-and-frisk ruling, which he said was "based on scant evidence."
"Our tactics and strategies have worked," the police commissioner told reporters.
Lhota has said he would try to retain Kelly, while de Blasio has promised change.
"Bravo!" Lhota said in a statement. "As I have said all along, Judge Scheindlin's biased conduct corrupted the case and her decision was not based on the facts."
Besides the interviews, the appeals court also took issue with how Scheindlin interacted with lawyers in a December 2007 hearing while she presided over another stop-and-frisk lawsuit and challenged lawyers to file another lawsuit if they were unsatisfied with events in her courtroom.
"What I am trying to say - I am sure I am going to get in trouble for saying it - for $65 you can bring that lawsuit," she said.
Scheindlin issued a statement defending her actions in that instance as proper. She also said her comments to the media only pertained to one of the two stop-and-frisk cases, and that the appeals court failed to notice that distinction.
(Additional reporting by Chris Francescani, Elizabeth Dilts and Nate Raymond; Writing by Daniel Trotta; Editing by Toni Reinhold and Lisa Shumaker)