Newburgh — City Court Judge Peter Maxwell Kulkin has a problem. He's been a judge for 2 years, but sometimes he still talks like the pugnacious defense lawyer he used to be.

Document: Letter from police to Judge Kulkin

Newburgh — City Court Judge Peter Maxwell Kulkin has a problem. He's been a judge for 2½ years, but sometimes he still talks like the pugnacious defense lawyer he used to be.

Exhibit A is the conversation that Kulkin had on July 13 with Newburgh city police Lt. Charlie Broe, which is almost certain to land Kulkin in front of the state agency that disciplines judges.

Here's the thrust of it: Broe saw Kulkin outside the police station after court and questioned why the judge released 19-year-old Ashley Garrett of Newburgh on her own recognizance after she was charged with felony criminal mischief that day.

She's accused of using a key to vandalize three police cars.

Kulkin could have responded with something like, "I can't discuss a pending case. You know that."

Kulkin could have delivered the kind of lecture that judges are entitled to give because they're judges: "Lt. Broe, the purpose of bail is to secure the defendant's appearance in court, not to punish the defendant."

Kulkin could have explained that the suspect had ties to the area and no criminal record and didn't give any sign she was a risk not to show up for court.

Judges have those kinds of freewheeling conversations behind closed doors, in chambers or in passing, or sometimes in open court.

But instead, Kulkin told Broe that it was "only cop cars" that were damaged, and added, "You know who else I let go? All those guys that threw rocks and bottles at you after the Puerto Rican Day parade."

That's Broe's recollection, and in a detailed interview with the Times Herald-Record days later, Kulkin didn't contradict Broe.

IT WAS THE KIND OF REMARK that a defense lawyer might make as part of a spirited, even heated discussion with a cop. Kulkin and Broe have known each other a long time: Kulkin spent years in City Court working for the Legal Aid Society of Orange County, and Broe was assigned to the court as a patrolman.

But a judge can't have the same kinds of conversations with people that a defense lawyer can. Just ask Deborah Scalise, a White Plains lawyer who specializes in representing lawyers, judges and other professionals who get into trouble.

"Most lawyers enter the legal profession to help clients with legal problems by arguing on their behalf," Scalise said in an e-mail interview this week.

"Likewise, some lawyers become judges to help others, but once they take the bench, they have a duty to the public, to set aside a lawyer's advocacy skills and listen to the lawyers' arguments on each side "¦. Judges must also separate their personal feelings, relationships and biases from the cases they preside over in order to deliver fair, objective, impartial decisions which serve the public interest and avoid the appearance of impropriety."

Newburgh police Chief Eric Paolilli doesn't have a problem with the fact that a judge has wide discretion to set bail.

He does have a problem with what Kulkin said to Broe.

To Paolilli, it's clear evidence that Kulkin, who spent the better part of 18 years with the Legal Aid Society of Orange County and also served on the City Council, has a bias against police.

"My feeling is that all our police officers are looking for is a level playing field, and if Judge Kulkin gives us that, that's all we can really ask for," Paolilli said last week.

Paolilli and Newburgh Assemblyman Tom Kirwan both filed complaints against Kulkin with the state Commission on Judicial Conduct. Among other things, Kirwan referred to Kulkin as an "anarchist."

JUDGES IN NEW YORK don't have much leeway to fire back at their critics.

The state's judicial rules forbid judges from speaking outside court about cases pending before them or in any other court in the U.S., Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands or Guam.

The rules also caution judges to avoid controversy and the kind of pit-bull rhetoric that can be deployed by lawyers who are advocating for one side.

So last week, Kulkin limited his response to Kirwan by saying that Kirwan had a right to his opinion.

In 2004, when Kulkin ran against incumbent Jeanne Patsalos, there were plenty of people who doubted that he could rein in his temperament on the bench.

One of them was Jim Winslow, a Newburgh lawyer who contributed to Patsalos' campaign.

"I still think that from time to time, Peter speaks more than he should as a judge," Winslow said.

"But I think he's doing much better than when he first took the bench, and 100 percent better than when he was a politician."

The question now is whether that will be good enough for the state Commission on Judicial Conduct.

That's the agency that has the power to do everything from publicly scolding judges to removing them from office.

The commission received Kirwan and Paolilli's complaints about Kulkin last week, and could take months to decide if they have any merit.