You can’t judge a book by its cover, but you can judge a judge by her political allegiances.
That was the message during a two-hour discussion on February 3 in a freezing community room of St. Johns Evangelical Lutheran Church (334 South 5th Street, Williamsburg) where four Brooklyn attorneys spoke to a crowd of 30 members of the New Kings Democrats political club about the county’s highly politicized judicial selection process.
“The lack of respect for the judicial system is off everybody’s radar screen,” said Brooklyn Corporation A’s Marty Needelman. “It’s just incredible how bad the system of justice is because nobody cares and it requires a huge amount of logistical planning.”
Needelman joined Central Brooklyn Independent Democrats President and Judicial Delegate Chris Owens, Democratic District Leader Alan Fleischman, and attorney Matthew Chachere to discuss the role that politics plays in choosing judges to Kings County Supreme Court.
“It’s all electoral politics and insider baseball. Lots of lawyers want to be judges, but if you don’t know the district leader, electeds and political clubs, if you can’t get into the Democratic establishment, you can’t be a judge in Brooklyn,” said Fleischman.
In Brooklyn, as is the case for other counties in the state, judicial nominees for State Supreme Court are chosen through a judicial convention process by delegates, who petition for the seat during election cycles once every two years. Civil court judges, as panelist Michael Chachere explained, elected along with Congressmembers and state legislators, are the gatekeepers to many of the issues that affect Brooklynites in their daily lives.
“Most people in Brooklyn have a greater chance of having their lives affected by their interactions with a judge than with a person in the legislature,” said Chachere. “Who is responsible for ruling on their immigration status and for deciding whether they can post bail? The vast majority of the people don’t understand who they are voting for and what the position means.”
Chachere would know from firsthand experience. His spouse, Surrogate’s Court Judge Margarita López Torres, was at the center of the evening’s discussion regarding the reformation of the judicial selection process. López Torres lost a Supreme Court battle in 2008 after suing the New York State Board of Elections when party leaders denied her bid to run for State Supreme Court. She did win a Surrogate Court position in 2005 despite a strong effort from Democratic leader Vito Lopez and the Kings County Democratic Party, which ran an opponent against her and then created another Surrogate judgeship position after López Torres won.
“Vito was friendly with (then Governor George) Pataki and created a new surrogate to dilute her power, which (former Assemblymember) Frank Seddio won,” said Owens. “The punch line is after Seddio resigned, a new battle between the woman who lost previously and Vito’s new candidate emerged and we won again.”
Calls and emails to Assemblymember Lopez’s office were not returned by the time this article went to press.
The panelists contrasted Torres’ experience with that of Civil Court Judge Pamela Fisher who ran unopposed for her judgeship last year and won, despite not appearing before a selection committee to interview over her qualifications.
In response to the discussion, New Kings Democrats Vice President Lincoln Restler vowed that his organization would pay more attention to court nominees and continue to run its members for Kings County Committee positions this fall.
“Our distinguished panelists made it perfectly clear that most seats on the bench in Brooklyn are reserved for the family and friends of
Brooklyn Democratic Party officials and the ultimate political insiders,” said Restler. “I am outraged by the absurd and arcane system the Brooklyn County Machine and Boss Vito Lopez use to place cronies on the bench. Our system of justice is undermined by their shenanigans.Brooklyn deserves better.”
Correction: This article previously stated that civil court judges are chosen through a judicial convention, when that is not the case. Civil court judges are elected in a direct election. We regret the error.