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Shortly after receiving the invitation to the dinner, Ira Raab, at the time a Second District Court judge, scrawled a note to County Court Judge Joe Calabrese, chairman of the bar's Judicial Section: "Joe: It sometimes amazes me how political the Nassau County judicial system really is. [To bestow the honor] only solidifies my belief that the Nassau County judiciary and the Nassau County Republican Party may be one and the same. Since I am not a Republican, I guess that I would not fit in as a welcomed participant at this dinner-unless, of course, [Mondello] is ready to endorse my candidacy for the [state] Supreme Court on a bi-partisan basis at that dinner. Please let me know his intentions so that I can issue my $36 check with all due speed."
In a later note, Raab suggested to Calabrese that the judges "should be inviting judicial scholars, law professors and judges from higher courts to address us with important, timely and significant messages about the judiciary and the law. Our section should be non-partisan and, especially, it should not be blatantly political."
Just getting warmed up, Raab urged broad reforms and pointed out that Mondello himself "does not support merit selection and merit retention [of judges] unless, of course, he makes the selection. Merit selection and merit retention of sitting qualified judges, or a non-political selection, appointment or election process, will assure a greater independence of the judiciary. If this cannot be accomplished, then cross-endorsements of qualified sitting judges and judicial candidates is the next best method of serving the public."
Raab wound up spending his $36 on something else.
Kicking the Man Upstairs
Ira Raab has already started lobbying for the return of the powers of the First District Court judgeship. He says that shortly after the election, he called Judge Joe Traficanti, one of the top administrative judges in what New York state calls its Unified Court System, to talk with him about the matter.
"I was told by Judge Traficanti that I will be 'in the loop,'" says Raab. "And I was told by Judge McCabe that I was going to be consulted. I'm very confident that I'll have no problem."
Last week's vote, says Raab, was "overwhelming testimony that people want change. It meant that the people wanted a shift in the judiciary."
He credits sturdy campaigning and, of course, the financial mess that turned many voters against the machine. "And I also think people read Newsday's series on judges and yours as well," he tells the Voice.
Some of Raab's impact, he says, may be immediate upon his taking office next year. "I want people to know that the government and the courts are now open in Nassau County," he says. "You are welcome to come in."
More specifically, such business-as-usual practices as the courts' tradition of allowing judges to assign cases to lawyers they know and may like-some of whom may be contributors to their political campaigns-could be nearing an end. Raab is an advocate of a strict rotation of so-called Assigned Counsel cases, in which lawyers are chosen to represent indigent clients when legal-aid lawyers are overburdened or have conflicts. Under the present system, many of the lawyers who got the most work or most money from the system were those who contributed to judges' campaigns [Here come the judges, Oct. 28]. Raab says he wants to take favoritism out of the system by instituting a strict rotation system, which is what is used in New York City courts. In his current court, he assigns cases to Hofstra law students.
"When I get the powers back," he says, "I will have a rotation system. You watch, you'll see."
True to his liberal roots, Raab also has a plan for helping teen drunken drivers avoid jail by having them clean up the courthouse in Hempstead and other locales instead of rotting in jail. "I've already spoken with the League of Women Voters about perhaps helping supervise the kids," he says.
That will take some persuading, as will everything else Raab wants to do. But a new era of horse-trading, including palaver between two political parties, may be emerging in Nassau.
Court insiders note the political reality is that the judges in Albany and New York City who control the court system represent a careful balance of power between Republicans and Democrats. With the Democrats suddenly a factor in Nassau, the judiciary bigwigs may take such Dems as Raab more seriously, especially because other Democratic judges also were elected. Nassau's Democrats also have their own power bases. County boss Tom DiNapoli is an influential assemblyman in Albany, as head of the Local Government committee in a legislative body the Democrats control. DiNapoli is said by various pundits to be tight with Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver. Ira Raab, for his part, says that years ago he himself was in the same Lower East Side Democratic club as Silver.
Some insiders point out that the elections left five District Court openings and that, instead of Joe Mondello's machine making the decisions on who will fill the spots, DiNapoli and Mondello will be doing the kind of backroom swaps that politicians in normal two-party systems commonly do. Two competing machines, after all, are better than one.