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Appeals Court to Rule on Judge's Status in Duke Case

February 14, 1996|JOHN J. GOLDMAN and PAUL LIEBERMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

NEW YORK — A panel of appeals court justices will hear arguments on an expedited basis over whether Eve M. Preminger, the Surrogate's Court judge presiding in the bitter fight over the $1.2-billion estate of Doris Duke, should step down to avoid the appearance of impropriety.

Noting that the case was important and had taken too much time, Justice Israel Rubin of the Appellate Division of the New York State Supreme Court--the state's second-highest judicial tribunal--on Tuesday granted a hearing on motions by Duke's former butler, Bernard Lafferty, and the U.S. Trust Co. of New York seeking to oust Preminger.

Rubin issued a temporary injunction, putting on hold a hearing before Preminger over whether Lafferty and the bank were fit to continue as executors of the tobacco heiress' estate.

Preminger last year disqualified Lafferty and U.S. Trust for alleged waste of assets and misconduct.

But the court of appeals ruled in January that the judge had abused her discretion when she unseated Lafferty and the bank without a hearing--relying on an investigative report that the high court said contained untested hearsay.

The state's highest court ordered the Surrogate's Court to conduct an evidentiary hearing--in essence a mini-trial--into the allegations brought against Duke's former butler and the bank.

But Lafferty and U.S. Trust then challenged Preminger's continuing participation, arguing that her prior ruling had created an appearance of impropriety and that "intense media scrutiny" heightened the need for her to step down.

Last Friday, Preminger firmly rejected their arguments.

This court is fully capable of determining the issues, on the evidentiary proof presented, in a fair and impartial manner," she said.

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