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Queens judge steps out of courtroom to tour embattled bus lane

2019-09-20

A street fight in Queens had an unusual referee on Friday.

Queens Supreme Court Justice Joseph Esposito made the rare move of touring a new bus lane on Fresh Pond Road in the borough’s Ridgewood neighborhood, the subject of a lawsuit he is presiding over.

The suit was filed against the city Department of Transportation on Wednesday by a collective of business and property owners who believe the lane, which is only enforced from 3 p.m. to 7 p.m. on weekdays, hurts commerce along a nine-block stretch. The group argues the city broke environmental law when it installed the lane.

Business owners and passersby shouted at the judge while attorneys from both sides pointed out various infrastructure set up on the street to enforce the bus lane.

“They don’t want to speed up buses — it’s just a cash grab,” one man shouted, referencing the city’s decision to put metered parking on side streets along Fresh Pond Road as a part of the bus lane project.

“I feel like a movie star,” said Esposito. “I’m just an ordinary lawyer who was lucky to get elected to the Supreme Court of Queens.”

Tony DiPiazza, chairman of the Federazione Italo-Americana di Brooklyn and Queens and a plaintiff in the case, was warned repeatedly by city attorneys that the tour was not an opportunity to testify, but still persisted to lobby the judge throughout the 30-minute tour.

“What are they going to do? Arrest me?” DiPiazza said. “There’s an empty store! There’s another empty store! Look judge, another one!”

Many of the storefronts DiPiazza pointed at were closed long before Aug. 27, when the bus lane went into effect.

Arthur Schwartz, the lawyer who has repeatedly gotten court orders blocking the city’s plans to restrict car traffic on 14th St. in Manhattan, is representing the plaintiffs in the case. He said the tour was a good show of justice.

“It’s not a bad thing if a judge actually sees the cityscape that they’re talking about,” said Schwartz. “I wish the judge in Manhattan would have come to my street, seen all the cars on my street.”

Esposito, who has said in court that he doesn’t not shop anywhere he can’t park, said he empathizes with small businesses in Queens.

“My family had delicatessens in Astoria and parking was always a problem,” said the jurist, smiling widely after his day in the sun. “But that doesn’t mean I can’t be fair to both sides.”

Esposito said the walk about was “not a publicity stunt," but when judge’s step out of the courtroom, it typically turns heads. In February, Brooklyn Supreme Court Justice LaShann DeArcy Hall visited the Metropolitan Detention Center in Sunset Park, where inmates were left freezing without heat.

The case returns to court Monday, and Esposito said he hopes to rule by mid week.

“I haven’t made up my mind,” he said. “Is the city anti-car? I don’t know, you can argue that all day if you like. Life changes."