THE JUDGE WHO SAID NO

Village Voice (New York, NY)
August 6, 2002, Tuesday

THE JUDGE WHO SAID NO
BY tom robbins


For the first time in decades, the Brooklyn Democratic Party has renounced one of its own judges, denying endorsement to a civil court incumbent and throwing its support to a challenger. It's a rare move for an organization that prides itself on supporting its own, acknowledged Brooklyn Democratic county leader Assemblyman Clarence Norman Jr. in an interview last week.
The renunciation of Judge Margarita Lopez Torres comes amid an escalating scandal involving judges the Democratic machine has sent to the bench. One supreme court justice, a longtime party loyalist, is expected to plead guilty to bribery charges next month. A state commission has targeted another for removal for alleged perjury. Several other judges closely tied to the party have been censured for patronage abuses in doling out judicial appointments.
But the decision to disinherit Lopez Torres--who, in 1992, became the city's first Hispanic woman elected to the civil court bench--has nothing to do with any of those problems, Norman said. Instead, it stems from something far more fundamental in his realm: disloyalty.
According to Norman, Lopez Torres demonstrated an unforgivable ingratitude to party leaders five years ago when she allowed a minority faction to place her name before the party's judicial convention as a candidate for state supreme court.
"We had a sitting judge who got involved in a political fight, which she shouldn't have done," said Norman. The refusal to endorse the judge lets others know such conduct is unacceptable, he said. "It sends the message that the Democratic Party has the right to endorse or not to endorse," he said.
For Lopez Torres, the move means she must scramble for votes and funding on her own and face a risky and difficult primary. But, having been cast out, she and her supporters are now talking openly about things that are usually left unsaid in Brooklyn politics.
In an interview last week, Lopez Torres detailed her conversations with Norman regarding the 1997 judicial convention, as well as two other incidents in which she said she had refused to go along with party demands. Shortly after her election in 1992, she said, Norman pressured her to hire a law secretary with ties to the county organization. Several years later, she said, she rebuffed a similar plea, to hire the daughter of Bushwick assemblyman Vito Lopez--who is no relation.
"There is no doubt in my mind this was disturbing to them," said Lopez Torres.
Supporters of the judge said that the move to punish her sends a much more sinister message than the one Norman intends.
"Throwing out an incumbent judge for personal and political reasons, which is what the Democratic Party is doing, is a violation of the public trust," said Assemblyman Jim Brennan, who represents Park Slope and Kensington.
David Yassky, city councilman from Brooklyn Heights and Williamsburg, is also backing Lopez Torres. "I am concerned that trying to unseat a sitting judge for something other than real misconduct will really politicize the judiciary in a very destructive way," he said.
Norman countered that the party is simply guarding its own interests. "She has the right to run and she is doing so," he said. "Let the public cast its vote the way it sees fit."
Voters generally know little, however, about judges on the ballot, and political experts say levers are pulled along ethnic lines, with the most electable judges being women with Jewish names. The party has chosen one, Marcia Sikowitz, to face Lopez Torres this fall.
A former legal services attorney, Lopez Torres said her problems began almost immediately. A month after she won an overwhelming victory with party support, and after she had hired a law secretary to assist her, she said she received a call from Norman. "He was very displeased that I hadn't selected someone the party had recommended," she said. "He said that was how things worked; that's how the party got people to work for it, by being able to place them in positions." She said the leader added that he couldn't compel her to hire the party's choice, but it would be better if she did so. "He said that if in the future I wanted to be a supreme court judge, the party would remember it."
Her own choice for law secretary was a former co-worker from legal services named Irv Weissman. "He had 20 years' experience and was a terrific writer," she said. But she later picked up grumblings from other politicians that she had hired a white Jewish man, rather than a Latino. "I felt Irv was far more qualified," she said.
Three years later, she said, she received another request to replace her aide, this time from representatives of Assemblyman Lopez, the Bushwick leader who had originally nominated her for a judgeship.
"It was made known to me that he wanted me to hire his daughter, who was coming out of law school," said Lopez Torres. "It was conveyed to me that if I hired her I would go up to supreme court. They said the supreme court seat was available, that they could make it happen," she said. She never heard directly on the matter from Lopez, whose daughter Gina went on to become a law secretary to two other judges, one of whom was later elevated to supreme court.
Lopez Torres said her own efforts to obtain the party's backing for promotion to the higher court were fruitless. She said she had written several times to Norman and the party's screening panel but was never informed of her status. As a result, she was receptive when a group of party insurgents, led by former assemblyman Tony Genovesi and Congressman Ed Towns, approached her and asked to place her name before that year's judicial convention.
The convention normally considers only a single slate of candidates, submitted by the county leader, and the delegates usually unanimously endorse them. "It's a Soviet-style election," said Gary Tilzer, a veteran political consultant who is working on Lopez Torres's campaign.
The rebel slate was soundly defeated, and, after the death of Genovesi in 1999, Towns and the other insurgents had what Norman calls a "rapprochement" and are currently allied with the leader. Lopez Torres is the lone exception.
She said that two days before the convention, Norman called her in court. "He was very upset, insisting that I remove my name from the slate," she said. "He said if I didn't, the party would never forget it."
Norman denied it, saying he has a policy of never "talking politics" with judges. "Absolutely not, I never called her," he said. "With all due respect, even if I was disposed to call her on a political issue, common sense indicates I call her on her cell phone or at home. I am not going to have a political conversation with a judge in court."
Nor had he ever spoken to Lopez Torres about her law secretary, he said. The party sends resumes of candidates to new judges, he said, but the selection is up to them. "I am going to say the lady lied," said Norman. "A bald-faced lie."
Assemblyman Lopez also heatedly denied ever promoting his daughter's candidacy to Lopez Torres. "She is making that up," he said. Lopez said his daughter had won her employment as a law secretary as the result of "volunteer work" for the county organization.
Lopez said he been disappointed to learn that Lopez Torres hadn't originally hired a Latino to work with her (her current aide is Hispanic). And he was also unhappy when she never conveyed sympathy to him after he was diagnosed with a severe illness several years ago. His irritation deepened when he read a letter in City Limits magazine by Lopez Torres's husband, Matthew Chachere, criticizing him for endorsing Mayor Rudy Giuliani for re-election in 1997. Lopez, who is currently working hard for Sikowitz, said he found the letter infuriating. "Her husband wrote that I should be challenged for re-election. What am I supposed to say? Thank you, Margarita?"

 

BROOKLYN'S JUDICIAL LOYALTY OATH

Village Voice (New York, NY)
August 13, 2002, Tuesday

BROOKLYN'S JUDICIAL LOYALTY OATH

By tom robbins
On January 14, a 10-year incumbent civil court judge in Brooklyn with a sterling record on the bench mailed a letter to the chairman of the panel that screens applicants for the Democratic Party's judicial nominations. 'This is to formally declare my candidacy for the Supreme Court of New York in Kings County,' wrote Judge Margarita Lopez Torres. "I look forward to your communication regarding my candidacy."
Two days later, the panel chairman, a veteran Court Street attorney and party loyalist named Jerome Karp, rushed out a response. It was a breathless, two-sentence piece of lawyering amounting to the political equivalent of "Don't call us, we'll call you."
"I have your letter of January 14th instant and hasten to advise that it is not necessary for you to declare your candidacy to me or my Committee. Candidates are only considered by our Committee upon referral of the County leader," wrote Karp.
Last week, Karp, who has been a steady beneficiary of appointments from Brooklyn's judiciary and whose specialty is representing lawyers cited for misconduct, refused to discuss the letter or the apparently iron-clad hold that party officials have on how his committee makes its selections.
"He won't speak to you," said a secretary. "He's not going to comment about his functions."
Karp's non-comment came on Monday, the same day that one of the successful graduates of his screening committee, state supreme court justice Victor Barron, pleaded guilty to shaking down a lawyer who had appeared before him on behalf of a litigant in a multi-million-dollar injury lawsuit. Barron admitted to taking an initial $18,000 bribe from the lawyer and demanding $115,000 more, just to sign the settlement agreement to allow an infant severely injured in an automobile accident to receive compensation.
Barron faces from three to nine years in prison when he is sentenced in September. His guilty plea is only the latest in a series of embarrassing revelations about the conduct of Brooklyn's party-backed judges, ranging from official admonishments for doling out patronage appointments to politically connected lawyers to charges of perjury against one judge. But the system that selected Barron and the others, one that relies heavily on party loyalty and pays only nominal attention to judicial abilities, is still in full flower.
Brooklyn county leader Assemblyman Clarence Norman found nothing embarrassing about Karp's letter.
"It's my screening committee," said Norman. "If I know there is someone we are not going to endorse, then what's the point?"
None, apparently. Not only did Norman refuse to consider Lopez Torres, a former legal services attorney with a lengthy resume of representing needy New York families, for elevation to state supreme court, he also refused to endorse her for re-election this year to her civil court post ("The Judge Who Said No," Voice August 6). It is the first time in the recent history of the Kings County Democratic Party that a sitting judge elected with party support has been denied re-endorsement. It is not for any failings on her part in her service as a judge. By all accounts, including those of political detractors like Norman, Lopez Torres has been an able judge since her election in 1992, serving at different times on the family, criminal, and housing court benches.
Instead, her problems stem from several run-ins with the Democratic Party's business-as-usual system of judicial selection. After her election, she said in an interview, she refused to hire a law secretary recommended by the party. A few years later, she rebuffed a similar demand from another influential Brooklyn pol, state Assemblyman Vito Lopez, who is not related to the judge. Finally, in 1997, after repeated refusals by Norman to consider her for advancement to the supreme court, she allowed her name to be placed in nomination by a party faction opposed to Norman.
Norman and Lopez vigorously deny ever asking Lopez Torres to hire anyone. But they say that her brief alliance with the leader's political foes put her beyond the pale.
"Judges are supposed to stay out of political fights," said Norman. "Why the hell did she get involved in a partisan battle?"
Lopez Torres, however, said she had no intention of getting involved in politics. She was merely trying to find a way to place her name before the party's judicial convention. "I thought there was nothing inappropriate about it," she said in an interview. "I had written repeatedly to Assemblyman Norman and his committee and received no replies," she said.
Norman acknowledged that Lopez Torres had been rejected in the past and that his decision to deny her renomination to the civil court was intended to send a message about party loyalty. "I feel we have a right to exercise our decision not to endorse ," he said.
In a second part of the message, Norman has thrown party support behind another Court Street lawyer, Robin Garson. In addition to being married to a sitting supreme court judge, Garson has represented Norman and the party in crucial ballot challenges to nominating petitions filed by foes of the county leader.
The last county leader to opt not to endorse a sitting judge was disgraced former Bronx Democratic leader Stanley Friedman. In 1983, Friedman refused to give party support to two incumbent supreme court judges, both of whom, like Lopez Torres, had good records on the bench. The move set good-government advocates wailing. The state's Supreme Court Justices Association denounced the move as an attack on judicial independence. The New York Times editorialized twice about the matter.
"Judges may now be more inclined than ever to decide cases or make patronage appointments in ways that please party officials," the newspaper stated on September 23 of that year. A month later, on October 31, the paper repeated its blast at Friedman, then still more than two years away from his indictment on corruption charges.
"Since political leaders choose the candidates for apathetic voters to ratify at election time, only party loyalists have a chance to get on the bench. But once there, supporters of the system have long argued, staying there requires only decent performance, not continuing kowtowing to the pols. No more," the Times' editorialists wrote.
Some Brooklyn officials have already quietly raised their voices in objection to the party's disavowal of Lopez Torres. City Councilman David Yassky and State Assemblyman James Brennan have spoken out, and some 20 elected officials have endorsed her for re-election.
One of them, District Leader Elizabeth Rose Daly, from downtown Brooklyn, has also called on Norman to allow the way judges are currently selected to be discussed.
"Confidence in the judiciary is one of the underpinnings of our democratic system of government and right now, public trust in the Brooklyn judicial selection system has been seriously eroded," wrote Daly in a February 26 letter to Norman. "We must objectively examine our practices, or suffer the consequences of others doing so without our participation, because they see us as running a sham operation."

 

Arm-Twisting Claims Investigated in Judicial Races

The New York Times
June 17, 2003 Tuesday

Arm-Twisting Claims Investigated in Judicial Races

By KEVIN FLYNN and ANDY NEWMAN
A former civil court judge in Brooklyn has told investigators a story that suggests that the politics of the borough can be as rough and tumble for judgeships as for any other elected position, according to lawyers and others involved in the case.
The former judge, Karen B. Yellen, has told the Brooklyn district attorney's office that Democratic party officials pressured her to hire certain consultants and vendors to help in her effort to win re-election last year, the people involved in the case said. If she did not, the former judge told investigators, party officials said that they would not give her much support.
So, according to Ms. Yellen's account, she hired Branford Communications, a Manhattan firm that has done much work for the party over the years, to put together a mailing for her and two other judges for which Ms. Yellen's share was $7,600. She also wrote a $9,000 check to a political consultant, William H. Boone III, to help get out the vote in central Brooklyn, though she did not think he did any work to help her, people involved in the case said.
Ms. Yellen's spending was in vain. In an embarrassment to the Brooklyn Democratic organization, which has traditionally prided itself on its record of getting its candidates into office, Ms. Yellen and the organization's other choice, Marcia Sikowitz, lost the primary to two insurgents, Margarita Lopez Torres and Delores J. Thomas.Ms. Yellen, whose account to investigators was first reported in The New York Sun, did not return phone calls to her home or office in recent days. Mr. Boone, who is now the treasurer of the county Democratic organization, did not respond to a phone message left yesterday afternoon at his office at Medgar Evers College, where he is an assistant dean. A lawyer for the head of Branford Communications said that the company did not force anyone to hire them and did the work for which it was paid.
Pressuring candidates to pick certain political consultants or make contributions to the party is not a crime, according to legal experts, unless there is evidence that party officials share in the payments they help to arrange. But the practice does not distinguish the process of judicial nomination and election, which many people have long viewed as less political than other races for public office.
One of Ms. Yellen's opponents last year, Ms. Lopez Torres, formerly had party support but lost it, she said, after she refused to hire friends and relatives of party officials.
The Brooklyn district attorney, Charles J. Hynes, for several months has been investigating how lawyers become elected judges in Brooklyn. The investigation began after a matrimonial judge in Brooklyn, Gerald P. Garson, was caught on tape accepting cash and gifts from a lawyer and began cooperating with investigators, Mr. Hynes has said.
Ms. Yellen, 56, was elected to civil court, with the party's support, in 1991. Last year, she was renominated, but she said she was told she was expected to hire Branford, run by Ernest Lendler, to put together her campaign literature, people involved in her case said.
A lawyer for Mr. Lendler, Richard Guay, said yesterday that there was nothing improper about Mr. Lendler's mailer, which advertised Ms. Yellen and two other candidates and was sent to 91,000 households.
"With respect to Judge Yellen's campaign, Branford did all the work it was retained to do and did it well," Mr. Guay said. He added that Branford has done work for candidates challenging the party organization as well as for organization candidates.
As for Mr. Boone, people involved in the case said, Ms. Yellen said she was told that the $9,000 for him would be used to get out the vote in the mostly black neighborhoods of central Brooklyn. Her voter base was not there, though, and she protested, saying she would rather the money be spent in Jewish neighborhoods where she thought she had a better chance of pulling votes, according to the people involved in the case.
Ms. Yellen finished third in a field of four, 6,000 votes behind Ms. Torres, in an election where the top two vote-getters win.

 

Approved by Judicial Screening Pannel

New York Law Journal
June 24, 2003, Tuesday

Brooklyn Panel Approves 17 Judge Candidates

By Daniel Wise

THE BROOKLYN Democratic Party's judicial screening panel has approved the overwhelming number of candidates who had sought its recommendation for five Supreme Court vacancies this year, sources report.
However, of the six candidates it rejected, three are Civil Court judges who had won their seats after besting an organization-backed candidate in a primary, according to those sources.
Civil Court Judge Margarita Lopez Torres, who defeated an organization backed candidate in a bitterly contested primary last year, however, won the committee's nod. A year ago the screening panel had refused to entertain Judge Torres' application because her name had not been forwarded to it by the party's leadership.
Meanwhile, two sources familiar with the operations of the panel questioned the degree to which it is independent of the party's leadership.
George Farkas, who resigned from the screening panel in early May, said it was his "perception" that some members of the committee might not have felt "free to vote their consciences" because of the presence on the committee of Ravi Batra, with whom the Brooklyn party leader, Assemblyman Clarence Norman, has had an of counsel relationship.
Mr. Farkas, a former president of the Kings County Criminal Bar Association who served on the committee for six years, said that Mr. Batra, who himself resigned from the committee last week, was viewed as being closely aligned with the party leadership, and that members who had interests in party affairs might have been "constrained" by his presence.
Another source said that committee members were afraid to make critical comments of candidates for fear they would be reported back to party leaders.
One committee member, John P. Gulino, a general practitioner on Staten Island, sharply disputed with those views yesterday, saying they were "absolutely not true." He added, "I have never had any inhibition from speaking my mind" in committee deliberations.
Mr. Batra called Mr. Farkas' comments "completely meritless and a shameless attempt at revisionist history."
The panel approved at least 17 candidates who sought its recommendation for a Supreme Court nomination. Under the party's rules, only candidates who have been cleared by the screening panel are eligible to be selected as the party's nominees at its judicial nominating convention which is held in September.
Most of those approved by the screening panel are sitting Civil Court judges. Among the Civil Court judges approved were Rachael A. Adams, Jack M. Battaglia, Bruce M. Balter, Bernadette Bayne, Lila Gold, Sara L. Krauss, Donald S. Kurtz, Eric I. Prus, Karen Rothenberg, Wayne Saitta, Arthur M. Schack, David I. Schmidt, Debra Silver, Kathryn M. Smith, Martin Solomon and Judge Torres.
In addition, Richard S. Goldberg who practices in a partnership with Steven D. Cohn, a former president of the Brooklyn Bar Association and currently the secretary of the Brooklyn Democratic party, was cleared by the screening panel.
Among those rejected by the panel were three judges who had defeated organization backed candidates in primaries. They are Civil Court Judges Loren Bailey-Schiffman, Betty Williams and Sylvia O'Hinds-Radix. One organization-backed Civil Court judge, Delores L. Waltrous was rejected as was lawyer Richard Velasquez.
In addition to Judge Torres, another of the approved judges, Judge Baynes, had won election in a primary against an organization backed judge.
Several of the rejected candidates will be appearing before the committee again for a "reconsideration" on July 1.

 

'Regime Change' Should Be Goal of Judge Probe

The New York Sun
June 30, 2003 Monday

'Regime Change' Should Be Goal of Judge Probe

JACK NEWFIELD
Although the Brooklyn judicial and political scandal is still unraveling, this is a good time to look at what's happened - and take a peek at where it's likely to go next.

It's a story about a system and a culture, not particular personalities. The goal of the series of articles I have been writing with Colin Miner is to provide sufficient information to reform how judges are selected, and to cause regime change in the clubhouse institution.

This is not about counting indictments; it is about making justice honest and impartial in Brooklyn, separating the clubhouse and the courthouse.
After reporting this story for a month, it seems that the Democratic Party of Brooklyn may be a racketeering enterprise under the definition of the state's version of the RICO Statute. This is the analysis that Brooklyn Assemblyman Jim Brennan gave me five years ago; it is more valid today than ever.

Under party boss Clarence Norman, candidates for judgeships and public office have been pressured to hire specific vendors, consultants, and Election Day operatives to keep the party's endorsement, and get on the organization's palm cards. This is a shakedown. It might be extortion. It is the party using its power to compel candidates to pay a series of tollbooths.

Three judges have told prosecutors they felt coerced to hire Ernie Lendler's printing company, William Boone III, or make "rent" payments or "contributions" to Mr. Norman's clubhouse, if they hoped to get elected.

Several candidates for high public office - including Ruth Messinger - have told similar stories to the Brooklyn district attorney's office. Conversely, the recent candidates who did not pay - Fernando Ferrer, Catherine Abate, Oliver Koppell, and Ms. Messinger - did not get the support of the Brooklyn organization.

Candidates who paid the right people - like Alan Hevesi for mayor in the primary, Mark Green for mayor in the run-off, William Thompson for controller, and Eliot Spitzer for attorney general - got endorsed. After Mr. Spitzer won, he hired one of Norman's designated consultants, Carl Andrews, for his staff. After Mr. Thompson won, he hired another of Mr. Norman's designated consultants, Jackie Ward, for his staff, at $80,000 a year.

This is the racket that needs repair and reform. It creates the appearance of auctioning endorsements.

When I asked Mr. Ferrer if he was asked for any payments during the 2001 mayoral run-off, he quipped, "It never got to that. Green made a preemptive bid."
The same mercenary system operates for judgeships. Even judicial candidates in uncontested elections have to raise $50,000 and hire clubhouse consultants who are Mr. Norman's cronies. Rachel Adams and Robin Garson are recent examples of this.

Judges who emerge from this culture tend to be political insiders lacking in character and impartiality. That's why the arrest rate among Brooklyn judges the last year has been higher than the arrest rate among the borough's general population. The Garson family of three judges - Gerald, Robin, and Michael - may end up looking like the Snopes clan of Court Street. Gerald is under indictment and his cousin, Michael, is being investigated for siphoning about $800,000 out of his elderly aunt's bank account.

The political system did not start with Jackie Ward getting $92,000 for five weeks of work, out of the $245,000 the Green campaign paid to Mr. Norman's clubhouse the same week he received Mr. Norman's endorsement for mayor. This has been a way of life during Mr. Norman's 13-year reign as party boss.

Between 1993 and 1998, campaign consultant Carl Andrews received $101,000 from candidates Mr. Norman endorsed. He got $38,000 from Mike Feinberg's 1996 campaign for Brooklyn surrogate. He got $8,000 from Eliot Spitzer's 1998 campaign for attorney general - and a staff job after Mr. Spitzer won.

William Boone collected $39,000 during these five years from candidates and committees backed by Mr. Norman. He also got $4,500 out of Mr. Green's $245,000.
A former judge, Karen Yellen, has told prosecutors she was coerced to pay Mr. Boone $9,000 during her losing campaign last year - and that he did no work.
Two other judicial candidates have subsequently come forward to corroborate Ms. Yellen's story of feeling extorted in their campaigns.

Between 1993 and 1998 winning judicial candidates - Victor Barron, Mike Feinberg, Karen Rothenberg, and Bruce Balter - all reported paying "rent" to Mr. Norman's club during their elections to become judges.

The $245,000 the Green campaign disclosed it paid to Mr. Norman's clubhouse fits this historical pattern. It is up to the grand jury to determine if it was a bribe for the endorsement.

I don't know the answer.
The more answerable question is: How was this money spent? Was it laundered through political clubs to pay for racist fliers and anonymous phone calls used to damage Mr. Ferrer's run-off campaign? Remember, Mr. Ferrer won the first primary by 5%.
None of Mr. Green's campaign filings have explained who paid for these fliers and calls. It may take putting all the key players under oath in the grand jury to get to the truth.

If they were paid for in cash, with washed money, that is the crime of money laundering. The Campaign Finance Board is still requesting receipts and cancelled checks from the Green campaign to account for this $245,000.

The great irony here is that when the New York Times endorsed Mr. Green over Mr. Ferrer in the run-off, its rationale was that Mr. Green was free of clubhouse influence.

The Times editorial appeared on October 10, 2001, after the Green campaign paid the $245,000. It read:

"The differences between the two men, which were noticeable before, have stretched to formidable over the last few weeks.

"Mr. Ferrer is a product of the Bronx Democratic machine, and his career has hewed closely to the party organization's political rulebook. Mr. Green has always been a political outsider, who had to fight for what he wanted, an idea man who specialized in problem solving."

We are still in the early stages of an investigation that District Attorney Charles Hynes says will last another year.
We need to keep our eyes on the prize - reforming the way judges are chosen, and separating the clubhouse from the courthouse.
The New York Times editorial page needs to catch up and make amends about how to reach this prize and who its real friends are.

The Daily News editorial page also needs to make some atonement, as it tries to win a Pulitzer Prize with uncalibrated braying about the Brooklyn judiciary, and a year of bashing Mr. Hynes when he was the only one prosecuting venal judges in New York City.

Margarita Lopez Torres has emerged as the symbol of an independent Brooklyn judiciary.

Last year, Clarence Norman tried to dump her off the bench because she had the guts to refuse to hire an unqualified law secretary that judgemaker and patronage baron Vito Lopez asked her to hire. Mr. Norman denied her re-nomination as a reprisal for this act of integrity.

Ms. Lopez Torres beat Mr. Norman's machine in the September primary. Yet, the Daily News' editorial page failed to endorse her in that election, when her career, and the principle of a merit-based judiciary, were on the line.

 

Behind a Troubled Bench, an Arcane Way of Picking Judges

The New York Times

June 30, 2003 Monday
Late Edition - Final

Behind a Troubled Bench, an Arcane Way of Picking Judges

By LESLIE EATON
This was supposed to be the year things finally started to change in the clubby world of Brooklyn politicos who pick the Democratic Party's candidates for State Supreme Court -- which in overwhelmingly Democratic Brooklyn means they pick new Supreme Court justices.

Under pressure from a growing criminal investigation that has been raising questions about virtually every aspect of how judges get elected in New York City, party leaders agreed to make some reforms in a process that has been criticized as too political and insular, even corrupt.

But even a group of Brooklyn Democrats now says the reforms put in place in the past few weeks are an assortment of half-hearted measures and empty promises. Party leaders "are happy with the status quo," said Alan Fleishman, a Democratic district leader and member of the Coalition for an Independent Brooklyn Judiciary. "They don't want to see things changed."

As the pressure builds in Brooklyn, the effects are being felt elsewhere in the state, where the judicial selection process for the Supreme Court -- the state's highest trial court -- is almost identical, from Albany to Oswego. Earlier this year, Chief Judge Judith S. Kaye appointed a panel to look at the way New York elects judges.

The odd, arcane system of selecting Supreme Court justices, which has been in place for close to a century, has been condemned as being based on cronyism and political connections, fueled by campaign contributions, and hidden behind "judicial conventions" that are nothing more than rubber stamps. The cost of the system, prosecutors and other critics have long argued, is an undistinguished judiciary.

In Brooklyn, at least, the bench it has produced is distinctly troubled. In May, Justice Gerald P. Garson was indicted on charges of taking money and gifts to fix divorce cases; he has pleaded not guilty. Justice Reynold N. Mason was removed from the bench this year for misusing his escrow account as well as improperly subletting an apartment.
Last year, former Justice Victor I. Barron pleaded guilty to taking a bribe in a civil case, and was sentenced to at least three years in prison. And at the end of 2001, a specially appointed inspector issued a scathing report detailing the role of cronyism and party connections in the awarding of lucrative jobs like guardianships and receiverships.
Now, as a grand jury investigates the whole courthouse morass, candidates for judicial positions are starting to complain about the amount of money they must raise -- mostly from lawyers who may well appear before the judges they help elect -- and about being forced to hire certain politically connected consultants.
Party officials deny that these problems have anything to do with the party's judicial selection practices. Judges picked by other means, including those appointed by government officials, have also turned out to be corrupt, said Jeffrey C. Feldman, executive director of the Kings County Democratic Party. "That people get into a system and are not fully committed to their oaths of office is a problem we all have."

But the situation in Brooklyn and the method of judicial selection in New York "are unique in the country," said Deborah Goldberg, a director at the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law. "States all over have elections, but they are real elections," she continued. "Here, the voters have no say."
Instead, the chairman of the Kings County Democratic Party -- since 1990 it has been Clarence Norman Jr., an assemblyman -- has traditionally controlled the process; the chairman of the Staten Island party might sometimes also have some influence, because both boroughs are in the same judicial district.

According to those involved in the process and to documents filed in a lawsuit in Federal District Court involving judicial selection, it has worked this way:
The chairman's office would refer potential candidates to a screening committee, which itself was named by the chairman. The membership of the committee was, depending on whom in Brooklyn you asked, either secret or, at least, not well known -- and turned out this year to include only male, middle-aged, politically connected lawyers.

Some of them are the very same lawyers who got the lucrative jobs from judges that were criticized in the special inspector's report at the end of 2001.
The screening committee would interview the candidates and tell the county chairman -- but not the candidates or the general public -- who was approved. The panel does not so much make recommendations as eliminate candidates, party officials say. The only legal requirement for becoming a State Supreme Court justice is that one has to have been a member of the New York State bar for 10 years when sworn in.
Meanwhile, party leaders would also be collecting signatures on petitions to nominate delegates to a "judicial convention." The origins of these conventions are hazy -- the State Legislature created them early in the last century -- but they are legally charged with nominating parties' candidates for Supreme Court.
The conventions are held shortly after the September primary at which the delegates are elected -- though the vast majority of them run unopposed.

In fact, the New York City Board of Elections does not keep records of the delegates' names, unless a race is contested, according to Naomi R. Bernstein, the board's director of communications.

Just before the convention, the district leaders and the county chairman meet and endorse candidates for the available Supreme Court slots. The delegates then ratify them -- usually unanimously.

Though most of the nominees have been judges in civil court, they are often former politicians or lawyers with strong party ties.
In theory, the delegates to the judicial convention can nominate whomever they want, whether or not that person has been passed by the screening committee or backed by the county leader. But such a nomination is rare -- and faces huge hurdles.

Take the case of Judge Margarita Lopez Torres. She had served on the civil court for a decade, but last year the Democratic machine refused to support her re-election bid -- because, her supporters say, she refused to hire people just because party leaders recommended them.

She ran anyway (civil court judges are directly elected and face primaries) and beat the party-backed candidates, as did another insurgent.


The party had rebuffed Judge Lopez Torres's efforts to rise to the Supreme Court, which offers judges both higher pay and more prestige than civil court. The screening committee would not even meet with her, saying in a letter that it would only consider candidates referred by the county leader.

This prompted Paul Bader, a judicial delegate who is married to Representative Nydia M. Velazquez, to nominate Judge Lopez Torres from the floor of the convention.
"It's not the norm," he said of his nomination, "and also, sometimes you do it knowing that you're going to lose, to send a message." His proposal got, he recalled, about 12 votes (there were more than 100 delegates).

Faced with growing disgruntlement among party activists and increased scrutiny because of the scandals, the Democratic leaders changed the process slightly this year.

They agreed that after the panel had conducted its secret interviews and investigations, it would tell potential candidates and a broad group of party leaders who had made the cut. The names of the lawyers who vet Supreme Court candidates were made public, and new members were added, including some women.

Three longtime members resigned, including Ravi Batra, a Manhattan lawyer whose firm employs Mr. Norman, the Brooklyn Democratic leader. Mr. Batra was also at the center of the controversy over fiduciary appointments that prompted the 2001 investigation.
About 34 candidates were interviewed for the five open seats, according to Mr. Feldman, the Democratic Party official, and all but eight or so were approved (three justices who are up for re-election will also be supported). But the list of approved candidates has not yet been released, he said, because some of those who were not approved are being given a chance to appeal the panel's decision.
In the absence of an official list, lawyers and politicians have been buzzing with the names of possible candidates and the degree to which they are friends and relations (or law partners) of party power brokers.

So the Coalition for an Independent Brooklyn Judiciary and other groups, like the Bar Association for the City of New York and the Fund for Modern Courts, continue to press for changes that they say will improve the quality of the bench.
"I want legal quality to be the primary thing people become judges on," Mr. Fleishman said, "not family connections."

 

Behind a Troubled Bench, an Arcane Way of Picking Judges

The New York Times

June 30, 2003 Monday
Late Edition - Final

Behind a Troubled Bench, an Arcane Way of Picking Judges

By LESLIE EATON
This was supposed to be the year things finally started to change in the clubby world of Brooklyn politicos who pick the Democratic Party's candidates for State Supreme Court -- which in overwhelmingly Democratic Brooklyn means they pick new Supreme Court justices.
Under pressure from a growing criminal investigation that has been raising questions about virtually every aspect of how judges get elected in New York City, party leaders agreed to make some reforms in a process that has been criticized as too political and insular, even corrupt.
But even a group of Brooklyn Democrats now says the reforms put in place in the past few weeks are an assortment of half-hearted measures and empty promises. Party leaders "are happy with the status quo," said Alan Fleishman, a Democratic district leader and member of the Coalition for an Independent Brooklyn Judiciary. "They don't want to see things changed."
As the pressure builds in Brooklyn, the effects are being felt elsewhere in the state, where the judicial selection process for the Supreme Court -- the state's highest trial court -- is almost identical, from Albany to Oswego. Earlier this year, Chief Judge Judith S. Kaye appointed a panel to look at the way New York elects judges.
The odd, arcane system of selecting Supreme Court justices, which has been in place for close to a century, has been condemned as being based on cronyism and political connections, fueled by campaign contributions, and hidden behind "judicial conventions" that are nothing more than rubber stamps. The cost of the system, prosecutors and other critics have long argued, is an undistinguished judiciary.
In Brooklyn, at least, the bench it has produced is distinctly troubled. In May, Justice Gerald P. Garson was indicted on charges of taking money and gifts to fix divorce cases; he has pleaded not guilty. Justice Reynold N. Mason was removed from the bench this year for misusing his escrow account as well as improperly subletting an apartment.
Last year, former Justice Victor I. Barron pleaded guilty to taking a bribe in a civil case, and was sentenced to at least three years in prison. And at the end of 2001, a specially appointed inspector issued a scathing report detailing the role of cronyism and party connections in the awarding of lucrative jobs like guardianships and receiverships.
Now, as a grand jury investigates the whole courthouse morass, candidates for judicial positions are starting to complain about the amount of money they must raise -- mostly from lawyers who may well appear before the judges they help elect -- and about being forced to hire certain politically connected consultants.
Party officials deny that these problems have anything to do with the party's judicial selection practices. Judges picked by other means, including those appointed by government officials, have also turned out to be corrupt, said Jeffrey C. Feldman, executive director of the Kings County Democratic Party. "That people get into a system and are not fully committed to their oaths of office is a problem we all have."
But the situation in Brooklyn and the method of judicial selection in New York "are unique in the country," said Deborah Goldberg, a director at the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law. "States all over have elections, but they are real elections," she continued. "Here, the voters have no say."
Instead, the chairman of the Kings County Democratic Party -- since 1990 it has been Clarence Norman Jr., an assemblyman -- has traditionally controlled the process; the chairman of the Staten Island party might sometimes also have some influence, because both boroughs are in the same judicial district.
According to those involved in the process and to documents filed in a lawsuit in Federal District Court involving judicial selection, it has worked this way:
The chairman's office would refer potential candidates to a screening committee, which itself was named by the chairman. The membership of the committee was, depending on whom in Brooklyn you asked, either secret or, at least, not well known -- and turned out this year to include only male, middle-aged, politically connected lawyers.
Some of them are the very same lawyers who got the lucrative jobs from judges that were criticized in the special inspector's report at the end of 2001.
The screening committee would interview the candidates and tell the county chairman -- but not the candidates or the general public -- who was approved. The panel does not so much make recommendations as eliminate candidates, party officials say. The only legal requirement for becoming a State Supreme Court justice is that one has to have been a member of the New York State bar for 10 years when sworn in.
Meanwhile, party leaders would also be collecting signatures on petitions to nominate delegates to a "judicial convention." The origins of these conventions are hazy -- the State Legislature created them early in the last century -- but they are legally charged with nominating parties' candidates for Supreme Court.
The conventions are held shortly after the September primary at which the delegates are elected -- though the vast majority of them run unopposed.
In fact, the New York City Board of Elections does not keep records of the delegates' names, unless a race is contested, according to Naomi R. Bernstein, the board's director of communications.
Just before the convention, the district leaders and the county chairman meet and endorse candidates for the available Supreme Court slots. The delegates then ratify them -- usually unanimously.
Though most of the nominees have been judges in civil court, they are often former politicians or lawyers with strong party ties.
In theory, the delegates to the judicial convention can nominate whomever they want, whether or not that person has been passed by the screening committee or backed by the county leader. But such a nomination is rare -- and faces huge hurdles.
Take the case of Judge Margarita Lopez Torres. She had served on the civil court for a decade, but last year the Democratic machine refused to support her re-election bid -- because, her supporters say, she refused to hire people just because party leaders recommended them.
She ran anyway (civil court judges are directly elected and face primaries) and beat the party-backed candidates, as did another insurgent.
The party had rebuffed Judge Lopez Torres's efforts to rise to the Supreme Court, which offers judges both higher pay and more prestige than civil court. The screening committee would not even meet with her, saying in a letter that it would only consider candidates referred by the county leader.
This prompted Paul Bader, a judicial delegate who is married to Representative Nydia M. Velazquez, to nominate Judge Lopez Torres from the floor of the convention.
"It's not the norm," he said of his nomination, "and also, sometimes you do it knowing that you're going to lose, to send a message." His proposal got, he recalled, about 12 votes (there were more than 100 delegates).
Faced with growing disgruntlement among party activists and increased scrutiny because of the scandals, the Democratic leaders changed the process slightly this year.
They agreed that after the panel had conducted its secret interviews and investigations, it would tell potential candidates and a broad group of party leaders who had made the cut. The names of the lawyers who vet Supreme Court candidates were made public, and new members were added, including some women.
Three longtime members resigned, including Ravi Batra, a Manhattan lawyer whose firm employs Mr. Norman, the Brooklyn Democratic leader. Mr. Batra was also at the center of the controversy over fiduciary appointments that prompted the 2001 investigation.
About 34 candidates were interviewed for the five open seats, according to Mr. Feldman, the Democratic Party official, and all but eight or so were approved (three justices who are up for re-election will also be supported). But the list of approved candidates has not yet been released, he said, because some of those who were not approved are being given a chance to appeal the panel's decision.
In the absence of an official list, lawyers and politicians have been buzzing with the names of possible candidates and the degree to which they are friends and relations (or law partners) of party power brokers.
So the Coalition for an Independent Brooklyn Judiciary and other groups, like the Bar Association for the City of New York and the Fund for Modern Courts, continue to press for changes that they say will improve the quality of the bench.
"I want legal quality to be the primary thing people become judges on," Mr. Fleishman said, "not family connections."

 

Making a Criminal Case Over Selection of Judges in Brooklyn

New York Law Journal

July 23, 2003, Wednesday
Making a Criminal Case Over Selection of Judges in Brooklyn

By Daniel Wise

This long, cold spring that finally turned to summer has been a season of ugly headlines for the Brooklyn judiciary.
"Probe If Dems Forced Judge to Use Cronies," "Dem Big Put Me In Squeeze: Ex-Judge," and "Subpoenas Fly as Judicial Probe Heats Up" are just a few examples of recent local headlines.
The intense public scrutiny followed a decision by Brooklyn District Attorney Charles J. Hynes to convene a special grand jury to examine the way Democratic judicial nominations are won in the borough. Mr. Hynes began the probe in the wake of the arrest of Brooklyn Supreme Court Justice Gerald P. Garson on felony charges of receiving awards for official misconduct.
The notion of criminality in the process gained added currency when Mr. Hynes subsequently was quoted publicly that he is confident a grand jury's probe will yield indictments. Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg also added fuel to the fire when he stated, in a pointed reference to news coverage of the Brooklyn probe, "Every day you pick up the paper, you read about more machine corruption."
However, election lawyers and judicial campaign consultants caution that it may not be so easy for Mr. Hynes to find criminal conduct in much of what has been reported to date.
At the heart of the most serious charges to surface are reports that two Civil Court candidates in 2002, one of them an incumbent judge, told investigators that Democratic officials forced them to obtain the services of favored vendors for their campaigns. The two candidates, former Civil Court Judge Karen B. Yellen and Housing Court Judge Marcia J. Sikowitz, were also told to come up with $100,000 for their campaigns or face the loss of the Democratic Party's backing, according to an article in the Daily News.
Judge Robin S. Garson, a third countywide Civil Court candidate, who did not ultimately face a primary opponent, also made substantial use of one of the vendors that Ms. Yellen and Judge Sikowitz complained they had been pressured to use, news stories have reported. [Judge Robin Garson is married to Judge Gerald Garson.]
Many aspects of what has been reported about Ms. Yellen and Judge Sikowitz's complaints are the standard fare of politics, the experts said. Political parties commonly field slates and ask candidates to commit to a budget. Indeed, they said, in a primary the candidates are expected to bear the cost of the campaign, because by law county political parties are barred from putting their money into primary races. The Brooklyn party, however, has formed a separate committee called Brooklyn Democrats, which is legally permitted to contribute to primary races, but has rarely done so, said party spokesman Robert Liff.
Similarly, experts said, political organizations often urge candidates to work with vendors they have confidence in, and to coordinate the campaigns of the slates they are fielding through a single vendor to realize economies of scale. While it is not uncommon to attempt to coordinate the use of vendors late in a campaign, they added, normally discussions of how much a candidate will need to raise are discussed in the early stages of a candidacy.
Hank Sheinkopf, a political consultant who is currently working on an insurgent's campaign for Civil Court in Brooklyn, put it this way: "A political organization wants to exercise control to get the best job for the lowest price. The sanction, if someone doesn't do a good job, is that they won't get more work."
Meanwhile, Mr. Hynes' probe of the Brooklyn political process has taken on new dimensions beyond the judiciary. Reports have suggested that the borough's Democratic leader, Assemblyman Clarence Norman, has used the party's American Express account for his personal expenses -- a claim he has heatedly denied. Other articles have reported that the investigation is scrutinizing a $245,000 contribution to Mr. Norman's political club by Mark Green's mayoral campaign.
One aspect of the investigation has fallen by the wayside: Mr. Hynes' office is no longer pursuing a criminal investigation of Justice Gerard H. Rosenberg for allegedly ordering a clerk to delete a draft opinion in a politically controversial case involving application of the city's 1993 term limits law to City Council races. According to a prosecution source, Mr. Hynes has referred the matter to the state Commission on Judicial Conduct.

Context Is Critical
Whether a crime lurks behind ordinary political activity depends very much on nuance and context, said Gerald Skurnik, a political consultant who specializes in judicial contests.
While it is totally ordinary for party officials to discuss budgets with candidates they are considering endorsing, those discussions rarely take place late in a campaign, he said.
Viewed in that context, a Daily News article reporting that Ms. Yellen and Judge Sikowitz were asked to commit to raising $100,000 after they had received the Brooklyn party's endorsement raised fair questions.
On the other hand, Mr. Skurnik asserted, it is common practice for party officials to steer candidates to vendors "they have confidence in" to achieve greater coordination, even late in a campaign. Postage, for instance, is a huge expense, he said, and it is reasonable for party officials to insist upon one mailing -- at a third of the cost -- when it has three candidates running for the same court.
Mr. Skurnik worked for one of two insurgent Civil Court candidates who defeated Ms. Yellen and Judge Sikowitz: Judge Delores J. Thomas, who was formerly on the Housing Court. The other victorious insurgent candidate in that race was incumbent Judge Margarita Lopez Torres, who had been spurned by the party leadership.
Regarding complaints about being steered to favored vendors, Ms. Yellen and Judge Sikowitz's campaign filings show that they each hired a direct mail firm, Branford Communications. Ms. Yellen reported paying $7,686 to Branford, and Judge Sikowitz, $12,836. In addition, the records show that Ms. Yellen paid $9,000 to William Boone, a former district leader from Mr. Norman's political club, for a get-out-the-vote operation on primary day.
Campaign filings also show that Judge Robin Garson paid $13,786 to Branford Communications, with most of the articles written about the matter pointing out that she had run unopposed.
Robert A. Muir, Judge Garson's election lawyer, said it was true that his client did not have an opponent on primary day. But, he added, she had faced an opponent and battled extensively in both federal and state court to get the opponent, James P. McCall, off the ballot. The matter was not resolved until about a week before the primary, Mr. Muir said.

Large Gray Area
Given that a contested countywide election can cost anywhere from $100,000 to $500,000, a prosecutor could have a difficult time proving that a reported campaign expenditure was actually a bribe to win party support or had been extorted from an unwilling candidate by party officials, said Douglas Kellner, a former counsel to the Democratic Party in Manhattan and now a commissioner of the city board of elections. Mr. Kellner added that a district Civil Court contest could cost between $50,000 and $100,000.

To prove a crime, Mr. Kellner said, a prosecutor would have to demonstrate a clear disparity between the value of a service and what a candidate paid for it.
"If a candidate pays $100,000 for a service that is worth $10,000, that strikes me as illegal," he said. "But in between those two figure there is a huge gray area that is very difficult to deal with. In the real world, it is not hard to come up with an election expense one could justify."

 

Pick State Court Candidates

The New York Times
September 11, 2003 Thursday
Late Edition - Final

Familiar Look as Democrats

By LESLIE EATON

The leaders of Brooklyn's Democratic Party gathered last night in a smoke-free, mirror-and-glass-lined room to pick their candidates for State Supreme Court.
But even without the smoke-filled room (and with some heated arguments), the nominees for the five open judicial seats were divided along the ethnic lines many party insiders had been predicting for months: three white Jewish men, one Hispanic man, one black woman.
The party is under intense scrutiny, in the press and by prosecutors, over the way judges are selected in the borough.
District Attorney Charles J. Hynes has called the process a sham and has a grand jury investigating whether judgeships are bought and sold by the party. Iin the last two years, one justice has pleaded guilty to taking a bribe in a case and been sentenced to prison, another was removed from the bench for financial improprieties, and a third, Gerald P. Garson, has been charged with receiving bribes in divorce cases; he has pleaded not guilty.
Last night's session was supposed to showcase the new open-and-above-board Democratic Party. "It was a wonderful meeting and we had some healthy democracy," said Clarence Norman, the party's beleaguered leader.
But dissidents complained that the proceedings were still controlled and choreographed by Mr. Norman and other party bosses. And Congressman Edolphus Towns, a longtime rival of Mr. Norman's, resigned his post as district leader just before the meeting began. Karen Johnson, Mr. Towns's chief of staff, said the congressman believed the judicial selection process was still tainted.
Other district leaders complained about the low representation of minorities and women among the party's candidates, whose nominations require official approval at a convention, scheduled for next week, controlled by party leaders. Because Brooklyn is heavily Democratic, getting the party's nod traditionally means getting the job, even if a Republican runs in November.
"It's a shame we haven't sent more women up to Supreme Court," said Alan Fleischman, a district leader from Park Slope and a leader of the Coalition for an Independent Brooklyn Judiciary.
Last year, the party nominated five men and just one woman for six open slots on the Supreme Court.
This year's female nominee may prove controversial. As a criminal court judge, Bernadette P. Bayne drew protests from Legal Aid lawyers in 1991 after having one of them handcuffed for 20 minutes for being late and "making faces."
Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani did not reappoint her to the bench, a fact she used to garner support among Democrats in her successful election campaign for civil court in 1999. Although she ran as an insurgent against a Democratic candidate backed by Mr. Norman, the party leader, she had support from the Rev. Al Sharpton.
The leaders considered only one other black woman -- Judge Kathryn M. Smith of civil court -- at last night's meeting. She faced a primary challenge on Tuesday and was leading her opponent by only 41 votes yesterday.
The leaders once again passed over Judge Margarita Lopez Torres, who stood outside the diner where the meeting was taking place, shaking hands and joking about being an "unofficial greeter."
The judge won a bruising battle to retain her civil court seat last year, after party leaders took the unusual step of refusing to endorse her for a second term; her supporters say she had earned their wrath by failing to hire people they recommended.
That wrath has clearly not ebbed; the district leaders voted against her and in favor of Raymond Guzman, who ran unopposed for civil court in 1999 and now sits in criminal court in Manhattan.
The three candidates who were shoo-ins at the meeting last night were: Bruce M. Balter, a civil court judge elected on the Democratic and Republican lines in 1997; Arthur M. Schack, a civil court judge and former lawyer for the Major League Baseball Players Association, whose wife is a district leader; and Martin M. Solomon, a former state senator who was elected to the civil court in 1995.

 

DEMS SET TO JUDGE 8 JUSTICES

Daily News

September 16, 2003

DEMS SET TO JUDGE 8 JUSTICES

By NANCIE L. KATZ

With its party leaders under criminal investigation, Brooklyn Democrats face heavy scrutiny today as they meet to pick eight candidates for state Supreme Court.
Whether those nominations have been up for sale is at the heart of District Attorney Charles Hynes' probe into the selection process. Brooklyn Democratic boss Clarence Norman and the party's executive director, Jeff Feldman, are the main targets of the investigation.
Party vets expect a stormy session among the 130 judicial convention delegates and alternates, whose vote will determine which candidates get placed on the November ballot. The nominations virtually guarantee victory in overwhelmingly Democratic Brooklyn.
Amid wheeling and dealing last week, the party's 42-member executive board tapped five civil court judges from 27 potential choices: Bruce Balter, Bernadette Bayne, Raymond Guzman, Arthur Schack and Martin Solomon. Incumbent Supreme Court Justices Michael Pesce, Theodore Jones and Herbert Kramer were endorsed without controversy.
"This is the result of political deal-making between district leaders, and not based on merit," said Alan Fleishman, a district leader who has led a rebellion to reform the judicial selection process. "These aren't the best judges out of the group."
Insurgent Judge Margarita Lopez Torres - who achieved fame for refusing the party leaders' request to hire a particular law secretary - is expected to be nominated from the floor, as she was last year.
Some Democrats expect to challenge Solomon's nomination, saying he has made anti-gay statements.
Another name that might surface from the floor is that of Civil Court Judge Kathryn Smith, who nearly lost her seat in last week's primary - and still may lose to Kathy King if this week's recount doesn't go her way.
Election results showed Smith leading by 41 votes. Insiders are saying King might squeak by in the recount.
Reformers say Norman tightly controls which names get on the ballot for Supreme Court. Norman's spokesman, Bob Liff, said the party leader is the broker, not the boss, of district leaders' selections and predicted today's meeting would be lively.
"It's a political process, and you'll have some political fights on the floor," he said.

 

THE KINGS COUNTY SAUSAGE MACHINE

Daily News

September 17, 2003
EDITORIAL JUDGING THE JUDGES

THE KINGS COUNTY SAUSAGE MACHINE


Despite the arrests of some of his judges and a wide-ranging criminal investigation, Clarence Norman, the borough's Democratic leader, can chalk up another glorious year. Yesterday, at his judicial nominating convention, he dubbed five party loyalists state Supreme Court justices-to-be. They're assured of the job. In Democratic Brooklyn, the November election is a foregone conclusion.
Norman could have supported a dissident Civil Court judge, Margarita Lopez Torres, just to lend some hint of credence to his phony reforms. He didn't. He fought her nomination and rammed through his slate - three incumbent justices and the five newbies. Eight slots were available, and Norman went eight for eight.
The situation in Kings County, though, is roiling. After the comical confab ended, two district leaders almost came to blows over the Torres matter. Too bad the confrontation was of little consequence. Norman's slate had already won the day. It wasn't pretty to watch, but the machine made its sausage.
"We had an open democratic process," intoned chief sausage maker Norman in his best Orwellian doublespeak.
There's more entertainment on the way. Tonight, the Bronx Democratic machine will grind out its links, er, justices. Tomorrow, it'll be the turn of the Manhattan Democrats and King Tom Manton of Queens.
What reform hope there is has been placed in the Commission to Promote Public Confidence in Judicial Elections, which yesterday called its first witness. Mayor Bloomberg. Who bluntly told the panel members to "get off your high horse" and do something about judicial corruption. He came out foursquare in support of an appointed judiciary.
Short of that, the mayor said, the political parties should use true independent screening committees, not the shams that most of the Democratic organizations employ. Manton doesn't even bother with a screening committee; he picks the judges himself.
The commission is not charged with considering an appointment system for judges. But that's precisely what it must consider. As Bloomberg said: "Knowing where the local [political] clubhouse is should not be a prerequisite for becoming a judge."
Currently, that's about the only prerequisite.
Is this any way to mete out justice? Ask the people, not the machine politicians.

 

NEW PARTY TACKLES DEMS OVER JUDGES

Daily News

September 21, 2003, Sunday SPORTS FINAL EDITION

NEW PARTY TACKLES DEMS OVER JUDGES

by NANCIE L. KATZ DAILY NEWS STAFF WRITER

In a telling sign of the Brooklyn Democratic organization's eroding power, the Working Families Party has nominated its own slate of candidates for Supreme Court.
The party, which has supplanted the Liberal Party as the predominant third party in the city, normally backs the same candidates on the Democratic slate.
But Working Families spokesman Dan Cantor branded the Democrats' judge-picking process as tainted.
"There are an enormous number of Democrats who are dismayed and disgusted by accounts of judges . . . selling out," Cantor said. "People are not going to vote mindlessly for a slate chosen in a tainted process."
While political observers give the Working Families Party little chance to make an impact in the elections, its best shot may be anti-machine crusader Margarita Lopez-Torres, a Civil Court judge who was rejected by the Brooklyn Dems last week.
The failed attempt to get Lopez-Torres nominated nearly ended in fisticuffs between warring delegates. Park Slope delegate and fellow insurgent Alan Fleishman accused Ralph Perfetto of Bay Ridge of "cutting a deal" with Dem boss Clarence Norman and turning his back on the movement to clean up judicial selection.
The borough's Democratic Party is being investigated by District Attorney Charles Hynes for allegedly selling judgeships.
Last week, Democratic delegates nominated incumbent Supreme Court Justices Michael Pesce, Herbert Kramer and Theodore Jones, along with Civil Court judges Arthur Schack, Martin Solomon, Bernadette Bayne, Raymond Guzman and Bruce Balter to run in November's judicial elections.
On the Working Families slate are Lopez-Torres, Jones, Kramer and attorneys Robert Newman, Rosemary Palladino of Staten Island, Lyle Silversmith and Alexander Eisemann."The conventional wisdom is that once the Democrats pick you it's over. No more," Cantor said.
Although Fleishman predicted Lopez-Torres could win, veteran Brooklyn lawyer Andrew Fisher was doubtful.
"This is certainly a striking contrast to the way the Liberal Party used to do business," he said. "It is certainly a reflection that key decision makers don't want to be that closely aligned to the Democratic Party chairman."

 

Editorial: Better Bench for Brooklyn

Daily News
October 31, 2003, Friday SPORTS FINAL EDITION

EDITORIAL: JUDGING THE JUDGES

A BETTER BENCH FOR BROOKLYN


The Brooklyn Democratic Party has long given the borough the business by stocking its courts with judges whose primary - in many cases, only - qualification is fealty to now-indicted boss Clarence Norman. On Tuesday, voters should strike a blow against this dictatorship of hacks and raise the quality of justice.
Five vacant Brooklyn state Supreme Court judgeships will be filled on Election Day. Following are the names of five candidates who are battling Norman's trolls. Most years, they wouldn't have a prayer, but this year may be different because of outrage over the epidemic of ethical and criminal lapses infecting the Brooklyn courts.
The five candidates are Civil Court Judge Margarita Lopez Torres and lawyers Alexander Eisemann, Lyle Silversmith, Robert Newman and Rosemary Palladino. Each has a solid resume as a legal mediator or referee, law clerk, appeals specialist or litigator.
Voters will find their names on the ballot on Line E under the Working Families Party, which chose its candidates after subjecting them to screening by a 14-member panel of independent lawyers, law professors, former judges and community activists. Every lever that's pulled for them will be a vote for a better judiciary.
Each vote also will serve as a condemnation of Norman's reign. Victory for Lopez Torres would be particularly sweet. Because she stood up to the machine's patronage demands, she is facing its full fury as she attempts to rise from the Civil Court to the Supreme Court.
As has become routine, Norman's Democratic candidates are party loyalists. They sit on the Civil Court, but don't be fooled by that impressive-sounding experience. They are undistinguished and undeserving of elevation to a higher bench.
So once again, remember these names on Row E: Margarita Lopez Torres, Alexander Eisemann, Lyle Silversmith, Robert Newman and Rosemary Palladino. Write their names down and take them to the voting booth Tuesday and begin the conquest of Norman.

 

What's This? An Actual Judicial Election?

The New York Times

November 1, 2003 Saturday

What's This? An Actual Judicial Election?


Ordinarily, we wouldn't bother to endorse anyone running for State Supreme Court in next Tuesday's election in New York City, and for a very simple reason. Competitive races for the state's top trial court have become so rare that they are practically an endangered species. By and large, these important judgeships go without a fight to the clubhouse favorites awarded a spot on the Democratic Party line, which is normally tantamount to election in this overwhelmingly Democratic town.
Ordinarily, too, we do not have much use for third parties like the Working Families Party, which seeks to gain power by cross-endorsing selective Democrats rather than providing real alternatives by fielding its own candidates. But this is not an ordinary year -- at least not in Brooklyn and Staten Island. Voters there have a rare chance to register their disgust with the hack-infested local bench and the clubhouse-driven selection process, and -- who knows -- maybe even elect some good, politically independent judges.
This opportunity arises because the Working Families Party is mounting its own Supreme Court slate. The alternative slate, which we endorse, is headed by Margarita Lopez Torres, a capable sitting Civil Court judge who says her refusal to hire law clerks referred by clubhouse leaders lost her clubhouse backing when she ran successfully for re-election last year. Running with her are: Alexander Eisemann, a private litigator and former Brooklyn prosecutor; Rosemary Palladino, an appellate lawyer from Staten Island; Robert Newman, a senior Legal Aid attorney; Lyle Silversmith, a referee in Brooklyn Supreme Court; and two incumbent Supreme Court justices also running on the Democratic line, Theodore Jones and Herbert Kramer. For the eighth seat up for grabs, we recommend a well-regarded incumbent judge, Michael Pesce.
Normally, running without the Democratic line would be an exercise in futility. But it is possible that the coincidence of an ongoing judicial scandal, and the fierce battle for the City Council seat held by James Davis before he was killed, will bring out enough concerned voters to send a message of reform loud enough to be heard in Albany.
At least that's our hope.
In another lively Staten Island race, to succeed the longtime district attorney, William Murphy, we strongly favor the Democrat, David Lehr, over his well-spoken but underqualified Republican opponent, Daniel Donovan, currently the island'sdeputy borough president. Mr. Donovan left a job in Manhattan prosecuting drug cases seven years ago to work for Guy Molinari, the former borough president. Mr. Lehr, by contrast, is a seasoned law enforcement professional of proven ability, having served as Mr. Murphy's top assistant for the past 21 years -- recently running the show when Mr. Murphy was sidelined by health problems.

 

Democrats Back Working Families Entry

The New York Sun
November 3, 2003 Monday

Democrats Back Working Families Entry


By ERROL LOUIS
Democratic Party officials from across the city are breaking with tradition to endorse Margarita Lopez Torres, a civil court judge who is seeking election to the Brooklyn Supreme Court on the Working Families Party line in tomorrow's election. As Judge Lopez Torres acknowledged the group's support at a press conference outside City Hall yesterday, she picked up an unexpected endorsement from David Dinkins, the former mayor, who was at City Hall for a different press conference.
"I didn't know this was going on, but I'm happy to have stumbled into it," Mr. Dinkins said. "I think she's entitled to support."
Judge Lopez Torres has been fighting a quiet but important battle with leaders of the Brooklyn Democratic Party for more than a year. After serving a 10-year term on the civil court, she broke with party leaders reportedly for refusing to hire favored insiders to court positions; in response, the party refused to endorse her re-election to the civil court last year.
Despite the lack of party backing, Judge Lopez Torres waged an independent, grass-roots campaign and won re-election to civil court. Along the way, she also became a rallying point for reform-oriented Democrats.
A number of judges placed in office by the party have been indicted on corruption charges in recent months, and a special grand jury is investigating charges that party leaders have demanded money and favors from judicial candidates in exchange for support.
Earlier this year, Judge Lopez Torres announced she would be a candidate for the Supreme Court, which has eight vacant seats to be filled. But the judicial convention of the Brooklyn Democrats - a body controlled by the 42 district leaders who make up the party's executive committee - voted not to include her on the party's list of candidates.
Undaunted, Judge Lopez Torres met with a screening panel of the Working Families Party, won their backing, and will head a slate of WFP candidates on tomorrow's ballot. A faction of reformers within the Kings County Democratic Party is crossing party lines to support her, including Assemblyman Jim Brennan, Council Member David Yassky, several Democratic district leaders, and congressional Reps. Edolphus Towns and Nydia Velasquez.
"This is a great opportunity to change the direction our court system is going in," said Rep. Towns at yesterday's press conference. "This is the day you can do something about it, rather than complain."
"We will send a strong message to the Democratic Party in Brooklyn," said Rep. Velasquez. "No more games. This is about the independence and integrity of the judiciary."
High-profile Democrats from outside Brooklyn are also endorsing the judge. "I can count on my fingers, and have a few left over, the number of times I have strayed from a Democratic Party candidate," said former Bronx Borough President Fernando Ferrer. "But if I lived in Brooklyn, stray I would."
"There's this wonderful buzz," Judge Lopez Torres said. "There is a lack of confidence in the judiciary. I think that confidence needs to be restored."
She also praised the interview process the Working Families Party used to screen judicial candidates. "I think they did it on merit," she said. "How wonderful to be judged that way."

 

THE JUDGE ON ROW E *

Village Voice (New York, NY)
November 4, 2003, Tuesday

THE JUDGE ON ROW E

Tom Robbins
The most significant race in any borough this election day may be the contest for state Supreme Court being waged in Brooklyn by a judge who dared to defy the county's Democratic Party hacks. Margarita Lopez Torres is the longest-serving judge on Brooklyn's civil court. She was the first Hispanic American woman to serve on that bench, where she won steady acclaim for bringing fairness and dignity to both the family and criminal branches.
Not even Republicans get elected to Supreme Court in Brooklyn without Democratic Party blessings. But Lopez Torres--denied Democratic endorsement despite efforts on her behalf by all of the borough's leading reformers--is running on the Working Families Party line and stands a fighting chance to win. Should she be elected, it will send a far clearer and stronger message about what's wrong with the judicial selection process than the strained and confusing indictments brought this month against party boss Clarence Norman by District Attorney Charles Hynes. Lopez Torres's experience is an object lesson in how party politics corrupts, although what happened to her would never merit a grand jury charge.
Lopez Torres, 52, would have moved up to Supreme Court long ago had she not run afoul of party leader Norman. She did this by declining to accept the party's choices to serve as her law secretary, an otherwise routine, if little-talked-about, transaction conducted by the Democratic organization. After picking the judges, the party then recommends assistants--whose $50,000-a-year jobs include scant heavy lifting, since the writing of most legal decisions is handled by a small pool of qualified aides in the court's legal department.
One of the party's choices was the fresh-out-of-law-school daughter of Brooklyn assemblyman Vito Lopez. Assemblyman Lopez is no relation to the judge, but he commands major clout within the party for the strength of his Bushwick clubhouse and his access to Albany patronage. The message relayed to the judge by the assemblyman's allies was that if she hired his daughter, she would have a good shot at a prized Supreme Court candidacy. This is the way things work on Brooklyn's bench.
Lopez Torres, however, declined. Another judge was not as choosy and, soon after hiring the daughter, he won the party's nod for the higher bench and was swiftly elected.
Lopez and Norman have both denied that this episode occurred, insisting that the selection of Lopez's daughter was strictly on the merits and that the elevation of the judge who did hire her was a mere coincidence. But another borough Democratic official, Ralph Perfetto, let the cat out of the bag in a letter mailed last month to all of his fellow district leaders.
"Last year I voted for Judge Torres, but this year I checked with two judges who were not candidates this year and four attorneys," wrote Perfetto. "They all labeled her an 'ingrate.' They told me that she courted Vito Lopez to support her for Civil Court, but then decided she didn't need him anymore and denied his daughter a job."
For having the temerity to do this, Lopez Torres became a banned person in the party's highest circles. Her repeated requests to be interviewed for a Supreme Court slot were rebuffed by Norman's secretive judicial-selection panel, which said it accepted referrals only from the county leader himself. Then, up for re-election to her Civil Court post last year, she was denied official Democratic endorsement--the first time in anyone's memory that this had been done. Lopez Torres ran anyway, winning re-election on her own and harvesting more votes than any other candidate.
aa Amid the headlines of this year's judicial bribery scandal and Hynes's much ballyhooed state grand-jury probe, Norman's organization ceded to some demands from reformers to open up its judicial selection process. It allowed the names of its hitherto secret panel for reviewing candidates to be made public. It also for the first time released the names of those candidates approved. Grudgingly, Norman's panel interviewed Lopez Torres this summer, finding her qualified. But when the party's executive committee met last month to make its selections, the judge won only a handful of votes from rebels.
A few die-hards tried to place her name in nomination before the party's judicial convention, but this too was a doomed effort, producing only a small shoving match between Perfetto and reformer Alan Fleischman, a photo of which ran on the front page of The New York Times as emblematic of high-running tensions in a party under siege.
Despite her outcast status, however, Lopez Torres will still be on next week's ballot. She will be there atop the slate of seven Supreme Court candidates running on Row E, the column allotted to the Working Families Party, the labor-backed activist organization that has cast itself as the progressive conscience of the Democratic Party.
The Democratic Party's official picks for the upper bench are barely visible in these last days before the election. They are presumably doing what Supreme Court candidates always do at this stage of the election process: relying on the party apparatus to turn out voters who will inevitably pull the Democratic lever, as they've done in every judicial contest for decades. But Lopez Torres is doing what she did last year, campaigning on her own at subway stops and senior centers and pressing her literature into the hands of passersby. Last Wednesday morning she was in downtown Brooklyn, at the Court Street IRT station, offering her palm card to commuters and calling out in a soft voice that "It makes a difference who our judges are."
With her was Councilmember David Yassky, who represents Brooklyn Heights and Williamsburg and is one of the few elected Democratic officials to endorse her.
"Margarita is a top-quality judge who I would love to see on the bench," Yassky said as he introduced a constituent to Lopez Torres. "Beyond that," he added, "what is at stake here is how we select judges--the good way or the rotten way. Her election would make a powerful statement."
Yassky said the Democrats should adopt the Working Families method of having an independent panel select its judicial candidates. "I think what they did was show us how it should be done," he said.
Campaigning just a couple of blocks from the courts where she presides, Lopez Torres encountered a steady stream of lawyers. One of them, Eric Poulos, a criminal defense attorney, said he had long been a supporter.
"I met her when I tried a case before her," he said. "I was surprised how civilized and reasonable she was. So many judges run their courtrooms like a jail. She is one of a kind. She doesn't rubber-stamp the authorities, whether they are the city's corporation counsel or the district attorney. She's one of the most independent judges, which is why the machine wanted to get rid of her."
Most observers see Lopez Torres's election as a long shot. The straight-Democratic-ticket voting habits of those who bother to cast ballots in Brooklyn's judicial races are too entrenched to be overcome, they believe. Should she win, however, "it would be pretty amazing," said Assemblyman Jim Brennan, another longtime supporter. "It would mean that it broke through to the general public that a change is needed. It would be a wake-up call to the [Democratic] party's executive committee that they need a significant change in how they're operating."

GRAPHIC: Photo: Trying to send a message: Judge Margarita Lopez Torres (left) and a supporter, city councilmember David Yassky (right) talk up judicial reform in downtown Brooklyn.

 

2003 Race for Judge

New York Law Journal
November 4, 2003, Tuesday

Staten Island, Brooklyn To See Contested Races;
District Attorney, Supreme Court Battles May Hold Surprises


By Daniel Wise and Tom Perrotta

Court Contests
For the first time in a 100 years or better, the Democratic Party's candidates for Supreme Court judgeships will face serious challenges from a full slate of third-party contenders from the Working Families Party.
Though the Working Families Party still considers its odds to be long at best, it is hoping that recent scandals in the Brooklyn judiciary will push voters over to row "E" on today's ballot, where the party is fielding seven candidates for eight judgeships in the second district, which covers Brooklyn and Staten Island.
The latest boost to the party's chances has come in the form of supportive editorials from daily newspapers, including The New York Times and the Daily News. In those editorials and others, of course, kind words are generally accompanied by put downs of politics as usual in Brooklyn, where Supreme Court Justice Gerald P. Garson faces bribery charges and Brooklyn District Attorney Charles J. Hynes is investigating how the Democratic Party selects its judicial candidates.
"I think it's still a long shot, but long shots can still come in," said Dan Cantor, the Working Families Party's executive director. "I don't know if the habits people develop over a lifetime can change in a couple of weeks."
Leading the way for the party will be Margarita Lopez Torres, a sitting Civil Court judge in Brooklyn who has some experience in defeating the Democratic machine: In 2001, she and another insurgent beat two organization candidates in a primary. Judge Lopez Torres, who had been running for re-election, claims she lost the Democratic Party's backing when she refused to hire a law clerk referred by party leaders, a story that party leaders still contest.
"We're hoping she has coattails," Mr. Cantor said of Judge Lopez Torres. "She's very strong."
Mr. Cantor said increased support for City Council candidate Letitia James, who is challenging the brother of slain councilman James E. Davis, might help Judge Lopez Torres and perhaps trickle down to the remaining Working Families candidates: Alex Eisemann, a private attorney; Lyle Silversmith, a referee in Brooklyn Supreme Court; Robert Newman, an attorney at the Legal Aid Society; and Rosemary Palladino, an appellate attorney from Staten Island.
The party is also cross-endorsing two Democratic, incumbent Supreme Court justices: Theodore T. Jones and Herbert Kramer.
Even Democratic officials say the current climate in Brooklyn could offer the Working Families Party a chance to establish itself, even by winning only one seat on the Supreme Court bench.
"If they are able to do this then they have accomplished something very significant," said Robert Liff, a spokesman for the Democratic Party. "They understand that this is their best shot."
Still, Mr. Liff said the Democrats are confident they are not about to witness the sudden conversion of one of the party's most supportive communities.
"It's a difficult place that they have chosen to fight," he said. "They are climbing uphill. I think it is unlikely that anybody other than Margarita Lopez Torres will have a shot [today]."
Running along with the two cross-endorsed incumbents is another incumbent Democrat, Justice Michael L. Pesce, the former administrative judge in Brooklyn who sits on the Appellate Term, Second Department. The Democratic Party's other five candidates are sitting Civil Court judges: Arthur M. Schack, Bernadette F. Bayne, Bruce M. Balter, Martin M. Solomon and Raymond Guzman.

 

2003 Endorsement

Daily News
November 4, 2003, Tuesday

EDITORIAL


VOTE FOR INDEPENDENT JUDGES IN BROOKLYN.
Five highly qualified lawyers are challenging the Brooklyn Democratic Party's control of the scandal-rocked Kings County judiciary. Clarence Norman, the recently indicted Democratic boss, is backing a typically inferior slate of hacks for Supreme Court. Instead, cast your ballots for Alexander Eisemann, Lyle Silversmith, Margarita Lopez Torres, Robert Newman and Rosemary Palladino. They are running on the Working Families Party line (Row E).

New York Times
The New York Times
November 4, 2003 Tuesday

EDITORIAL


STATE SUPREME COURT
Brooklyn and Staten Island, Margarita Lopez Torres (WFP), Alexander Eisemann (WFP), Rosemary Palladino (WFP), Robert Newman (WFP), Lyle Silversmith (WFP), Theodore Jones (WFP), Herbert Kramer (WFP) and Michael Pesce (D).

 

2003 Judicial Election

The New York Times
November 5, 2003 Wednesday

THE 2003 ELECTION: JUDGES;
Democrats Keep Hold on Judgeships in Brooklyn


By ANDY NEWMAN
The Brooklyn Democratic Party weathered a challenge to its hold on Supreme Court judgeships last night, as the Democratic candidates soundly defeated a slate run by the Working Families Party for the eight available seats on the bench.
Despite months of headlines about corrupt judges in Brooklyn and tight control over the process of picking judicial candidates by Democratic leaders, the Working Families Party, a left-leaning organization that usually supports Democrats, was unable to muster much support for what it described as a concerted effort at reform.
With 99 percent of the vote in, the Democratic candidates had outpolled both their Republican opponents and the Working Families candidates by a margin of about three to one. The Working Families candidates were running slightly behind the Republicans.
"Obviously the public did not subscribe to a lot of the negative and certainly unfair attacks that we in the Democratic Party have been subject to in our selection of judges," said the Brooklyn Democratic leader, Assemblyman Clarence Norman Jr. "The public apparently does have confidence in the way the Democratic Party endorses judicial candidates."
The victorious Democratic slate included three incumbent Supreme Court judges -- Theodore T. Jones, Herbert Kramer and Michael L. Pesce -- and five Civil Court judges: Bruce M. Balter, Martin M. Solomon, Arthur M. Schack, Bernadette F. Bayne and Raymond Guzman.
The Supreme Courts are the state's highest trial courts and hear both criminal and major civil cases.
After the arrest in April of a Brooklyn Supreme Court judge, who has since been charged with bribery, the Democrats came under fire for a judicial selection process and screening panel that allowed party leaders to essentially handpick the Democratic nominees. No one has won a seat on the Supreme Court in Brooklyn without the endorsement of the Democratic Party in many decades.
Some critics charged that the party leaders were more interested in patronage and campaign contributions than in recruiting the finest legal minds to the bench. Mr. Norman himself was indicted last month on larceny charges, some of them related to his handling of campaign money.
Responding to criticism, the Democratic Party took steps to open the screening process over the summer.
The Working Families Party, meanwhile, fielded a slate of five candidates led by Margarita Lopez Torres, a Civil Court judge who won her seat as the Democratic machine candidate in 1992 but split with the party several years ago.
With 99 percent of the vote in, Ms. Lopez Torres had fewer than half the votes of the least popular Democratic candidate.
The executive director of the Working Families Party, Dan Cantor, said he was encouraged by the party's showing in its first attempt to run a full slate of candidates for any office. "We intend to continue working on this issue until we have the judges that we deserve," Mr. Cantor said, "but the habits of a lifetime don't change overnight."

 

Held Serve

The New York Sun
November 6, 2003 Thursday

DEMOCRATS JOYOUS OVER 'HELD SERVE' IN BROOKLYN

BYLINE: By COLIN MINER
Despite an ongoing scandal investigation, leaders of the Brooklyn Democratic Party were positively giddy yesterday about their sweep in the judicial elections.
"The bottom line is that we held serve," said Bob Liff, a party spokesman. "The people of Brooklyn went to the polls and said they are satisfied with the way things are."
But he said the party would continue overhauling the way judges are selected.
"The commitment to reform remains as strong as ever," Mr. Liff said. "We have already started reforming the way judges are selected and that is a process that will continue."
The Democrats had eight candidates running for seats and all were elected, defeating Republicans and candidates of the Working Families Party by no less than a 3-1 margin in most cases.
The most notable of the losing candidates, Judge Margarita Lopez Torres, said she was disappointed.
"It's never good when you lose," she said. "But this was an important first step for a lot of people."
Judge Lopez Torres, who was trying to move up to state Supreme Court from civil court, last year had become a poster child for reform of the judicial selection process when Democrats refused to back her because she wouldn't hire an elected official's relative as her law secretary.
"The good thing is that many more people are aware of the process than they used to be," she said. "Many times during the campaign people came up to me to say how they were aware of the race for the first time and how for the first time they actually knew who was running."
The selection process was thrust into the spotlight in April with the arrest of Judge Gerald Garson, who told prosecutors he could offer proof that judgeships were for sale. Brooklyn District Attorney Charles Hynes convened a grand jury that is still investigating the allegations.
Critics of the process had held up the elections as a referendum on the leader of the Brooklyn Democrats, Clarence Norman.
The executive director of the Working Families Party, Dan Cantor, took another view of the results.
"More than 32,000 people went to the polls and said they are not happy with the way things are going," Mr. Cantor said. "They loudly spoke up and said they want change."
Mr. Cantor said the turnout will get higher with each election.
"People in Brooklyn have been raised to vote the Democratic line," he said. "You can't change voting habits overnight."
Elected to seats on the state Supreme Court on Tuesday were Bruce Balter, Bernadette Bayne, Raymond Guzman, Arthur Schack, and Martin Solomon, all judges on the civil court. Three incumbent Supreme Court judges, Theodore Jones, Herbert Kramer, and Michael Pesce, were re-elected.

 

Aftermath 2002 Race for Civil Court Judge

New York Law Journal
November 18, 2003, Tuesday

Norman Faces Further Counts Along With Party's Director;
Brooklyn Democratic Officials Accused of Pressuring Judge Candidates

By Daniel Wise
THE TWO top officials of the Brooklyn Democratic Party have been indicted on charges of pressuring candidates running for Civil Court judgeships to hire favored vendors and were ordered to surrender to the District Attorney's Office yesterday evening, according to sources.
Assemblyman Clarence Norman, chairman of the Brooklyn party, and Jeffrey Feldman, its executive director, are expected to be arraigned this morning, at which time the indictments will be unsealed.
Five weeks ago, Mr. Norman was indicted on charges of misusing party and campaign funds. At that time, it was widely reported that the grand jury that issued the Norman indictment did not charge Messrs. Norman and Feldman -- as had been expected -- with pressuring candidates to hire vendors.
In fact, at the time, the New York Daily News reported that the grand jury was unable to muster a majority of 12 votes in favor of an indictment with respect to the hiring charge. With the reported vote 10-2 in favor of an indictment, the grand jury was apparently unable to come to a definitive decision either in favor of or against an indictment. Under those circumstances, experts said, there was no legal impediment to the prosecution's re-submission of the issue to the grand jury.
After a hiatus of slightly more than five weeks, the grand jury has voted the indictment that was initially expected on Oct. 9, according to sources. Jerry Schmetterer, a spokesman for the Brooklyn District Attorney's Office declined comment.
The hiring charge, sources say, stems from a boroughwide Civil Court campaign in 2002 in which two insurgent candidates, Civil Court Judge Margarita Lopez Torres and Housing Court -- now Civil Court -- Judge Delores J. Thomas, defeated two party-backed candidates, incumbent Judge Karen B. Yellen and Housing Court Judge Marcia Sikowitz.
The charges reportedly accuse Mr. Norman and Mr. Feldman of threatening to withhold support from Judges Yellen and Sikowitz unless they hired William Boone III, a former leader in Mr. Norman's political club, to run a get-out-the-vote campaign, and Branford Communications to handle campaign mailings.
According to filings with the city Board of Elections, Judge Yellen's campaign paid $9,000 to Mr. Boone and $7,686 to the Branford firm.
Similarly, the filings of Judge Sikowitz's campaign reported $12,836 to Branford, but no payments to Mr. Boone, who holds an administrative post at Medgar Evers College in Brooklyn.
One source noted that Mr. Boone was hired to get out the vote in minority neighborhoods, where Judge Yellen, who is Jewish, would presumably not have fared as well as her opponents, Judge Thomas, who is black, and Judge Lopez Torres, who is Hispanic. In addition, the source noted, Judge Yellen had already retained as her campaign consultant the Advance Group, which handles campaign mailings among other services.
Robert Liff, a spokesman for Messrs. Norman and Feldman, denied that either official had pressured anyone. Mr. Liff asserted the facts belied any assertion that Judge Yellen had been pressured to retain Mr. Boone on pain of losing critical party aid. Judge Yellen did not pay Mr. Boone until the day after she lost the primary, he said.
Mr. Liff also disputed that Branford was a vendor favored by party leaders. Ernest Lendler, the principal of Advance, has been hired both by party-backed candidates and insurgents, he said.
Richard Guay, Mr. Lendler's lawyer, said his client had no knowledge of either judge being pressured to hire him, and he would not have accepted the assignment if he had known.
In addition, Mr. Guay, of Meyer, Suozzi, English & Klein, said that Mr. Lendler had "fully cooperated with the investigation since its inception."
A source close to Mr. Boone said he had done "nothing inappropriate or pressured Ms. Yellen in any way."

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