Stephanie Tuorto – NY Reg. #5353701
Who: A group of law professors filed a grievance in March 2023 against attorney Stephanie Tuorto, alleging that Tuorto engaged in misconduct while prosecuting Daulat Gurtata on behalf of the Suffolk County District Attorney’s Office. The complaint was filed with the Grievance Committee for the Tenth Judicial District, the body that handles ethics complaints against attorneys in Suffolk and Nassau Counties. The following summary is based on the complaint.
What: The ethics complaint, also known as a grievance, is based on a court decision, People v. Gurtata.
According to the complaint, in the Gurtata case, the Supreme Court, Appellate Term, found that Tuorto committed a Batson violation by improperly removing two jurors of color. In response to the defense’s Batson objection, the trial court asked Tuorto if she had a “race neutral” justification for the strikes. Tuorto bizarrely claimed that her “race neutral” reason was that Gurtata was Afghani, whereas the two jurors were from Trinidad and Nigeria: “It just so happens that juror No. 1 comes from Trinidad originally. . . . [the second struck juror] is from Nigeria. . . . . Mr. Gurtata is not of the same nationality or religious background of these people. So the race neutral reason is that they don’t come from the same exact background as this particular defendant. It’s not as if these two individuals are African American and the defendant is African American.” According to the complaint, Tuorto was later prompted by the trial judge, and added she found one of the prospective jurors to be not forthright and the other was “hesitant.” The trial court accepted this rationale and denied the Batson challenge, but on appeal, the Supreme Court, Appellate Term, found that Tuorto had given pretextual reasons for wanting to exclude those jurors, requiring reversal of the conviction.
What rules are involved: The complaint notes that for many years, the United States’ long-held tradition of jury trials mostly meant juries of property-owning white male citizens sitting in judgment of anyone asserting their right to a jury trial. Race, gender, religion, and property ownership were often accepted as reasonable means to decide who could, and who could not, decide the fates of Americans as a juror. Despite over a century of litigation declaring discriminatory jury strikes unconstitutional, the practice among prosecutors continues.
Prosecutors wield immense power, the power to seek punishment on behalf of the state, and should be held to the highest ethical standards. The grievance alleges that Tuorto’s conduct violated the following ethical rules:
- Rule of Professional Conduct 8.4(d) prohibits lawyers from engaging in conduct inherently prejudicial to the administration of justice; and
- Rule of Professional Conduct 8.4(h) prohibits lawyers from engaging in conduct that adversely reflects on the attorney’s fitness.
The complaint calls for the Grievance Committee to investigate the conduct under Rule of Professional Conduct 8.4(g), barring “unlawful discrimination.”
The complaint further notes that Tuorto’s pretextual reason for the strikes arguably constitutes dishonesty in violation of Rule 3.3(a)(1) (knowingly making a false statement of fact to a tribunal), Rule 4.1 (knowingly making a false statement of fact to a person other than a client—here, the trial judge), Rule 8.4(b) (engaging in illegal conduct that adversely reflects on the lawyer’s honesty or trustworthiness or fitness as a lawyer), and Rule 8.4(c) (engaging in conduct involving dishonesty, fraud, deceit or misrepresentation).
What can be done about it: The law professors’ complaint calls on the Grievance Committee to investigate and issue serious public discipline. It also calls for a broader investigation into this attorney’s other cases and whether this attorney’s supervisors complied with their duties under Rule 5.1.
Note: This is a summary based on the grievance, click on the grievance below for more detail. The grievance authors do not have personal knowledge of any of the facts or circumstances of the attorney or case(s) mentioned; the grievance is based on court opinions, briefs and/or other documents cited therein.