By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
Judge Sam Levine, president of the Board of Judges of Nassau County District Court, has scheduled a commencement ceremony this week to give a retirement speech. Retiring, yes. Shy, no. He'll leave the way he came in more than three years ago, kicking and screaming about the one-party rule's danger to the judicial system.
Levine is not likely to actually kick and scream; that's not his style. Nor is it the style of Nassau Democratic boss Tom DiNapoli. Fresh from a stunning across-the-board upset of the county's GOP machine, DiNapoli says he's "not pessimistic" about the chance that the growing number of Democratic judges can flex their muscles.
DiNapoli, however, offers no specific plan, publicly at least, to help his party's judges fight for more authority within the court system.
Levine bears scars from the battle. Despite his fancy title and such perks as a car, a good secretary and an office in the administrative chambers of the main courthouse in Hempstead, the veteran Democrat has been shorn of power by the GOP machine, which has kept control of the operation of the 400 court employees. From time to time, Levine has even been banished to Siberiaa.k.a. small-claims courts in the Hicksville and Great Neck offices.
It was a shock when Levine won the job in the 1996 election. It was even a bigger shock to learn that he'd be succeeded by another Democrat, Ira Raab, who has also slugged it out with the machine. Both Levine and Raab are on record as being opposed to the current system in which judges run for office, rake in contributions from lawyers and shell out money to the GOP machine.
Levine, forced by law to retire because of his age (he's near 70), has fought for a host of other reforms, including better representation of tenants, the poor, the elderly and the disabled, but has made little headway. If he had held real administrative power, such as the ability to change the current system of letting judges individually assign campaign contributors to court-appointed cases, some of those reforms could have been carried out.
A radical retooling of New York's Unified Court System, one of the world's largest, won't happen. Nevertheless, DiNapoli says he's convinced that the presence of more Democratic judges and the results of his party's seizure of majority rule in the county legislature may actually lead to a more rational system than the current feverish exchange of money and political influence for judgeships.
The GOP, says DiNapoli, "has used judgeships as a political payoff for people who maybe aren't the best. Making judges run for office is crazy. Judges can't talk about issues and people don't know who they are, so it tends to be a party-line vote."
More than a decade ago, Nassau GOP boss Joe Mondello ended his party's tradition of cross-endorsing sitting Democratic judges. The GOP's control of the legislature and county executive office meant that Republican faithfuls would be appointed to vacancies and then routinely elected to judgeships.
DiNapoli says that era may be ending. "We're seeing the beginnings of a bipartisan judiciary," he says. And now the Democrats, who will hold a 10-9 edge in the next legislature, have enough leverage, perhaps, to make Mondello take them seriously. Which means that, as court vacancies come open, the Democrats and Republicans will start horse-trading and compromising on appointing judges.
"I've raised this with him already," DiNapoli says of Mondello. DiNapoli describes his relationship with Mondello as "very cordial," and Mondello, at least publicly, returns the compliment. On the GOP's disastrous election night, Mondello was gracious toward his newly powerful counterpart, saying, "Tommy DiNapoli is a very decent human being."
Whatever Mondello's feelings, his actions speak louder. The lame-duck Republican county legislators just rescinded the tax hike they had approved before the election. And rumors swirled around Mineola earlier this week that Mondello's troops would attempt to ram through a measure requiring that the legislature scrap majority rule in favor of two-thirds rule, in a move to further cripple the incoming Democratic majority of 10-9. DiNapoli acknowledges that he has heard the rumor but he says such action would be legally dubious. Not to mention nuts. "They continue to do stupid things," he says of the Nassau GOP.
In This Country, the Judges Pay
The ties between the Nassau GOP machine and judges McCabe and Wexner are self-evident in campaign-finance records.
Wexner's campaign committee sent $35 to the party on Dec. 4, 1998 and, in what must have been an early Christmas present, $700 on Dec. 22. That money definitely came in handy. According to the records, Mondello was getting advances from the party. He received his regular weekly pay of $1,353.94 from the party sixtimes that month: on Dec. 3, Dec. 10, Dec. 14, Dec. 15, Dec. 24 and Dec. 31. He received two more paychecks from the party on Jan. 7, 1999, of $1,259.11 each. The pay continued its strange rhythm: Mondello skipped a week and then took regular weekly checks of the $1,259.11 on Jan. 21, Jan. 28 and Feb. 4. Then, on Feb. 11, he took consecutively numbered checks for $1,259.11 and $2,518.30.
The next day, Judge McCabe was there to help out. On Feb. 12, according to the records, McCabe sent $500 to the party, followed by $100 on March 2 and $100 on March 3.
Right around that time, Judge Levine had a radically different agenda. In a Jan. 29, 1999, letter to the Unified Court System's Committee to Promote Public Trust & Confidence in the System, Levine noted that he had urged Jonathan Lippman, the state's chief administrative judge, to prohibit judges, judicial candidates and campaign committees from giving or taking money from attorneys or court-related organizations. "I have said NO TO LAWYERS and court personnel who wanted to contribute to my campaigns," Levine wrote in the letter, a copy of which was obtained by the Long Island Voice. "I also support the efforts of the Association of the Bar of the City of New York and the State Bar Association to put an end to campaign contributions that flow from lawyers to elected officialsincluding judgesin exchange for government work or appointmentsespecially court-related."
Levine's letter went on to flatly urge that administrators "take politics out of our courts," adding, "Too many political leaders in the state, especially in counties where one party dominates most public offices, have too much control over the selection, appointment and election of judges."
He advocated the system currently in place in Florida, which makes it a crime for judges to take money from political organizations.
Good luck, Sam.
What's in a Name?
Court insiders say that New York court officials will never go for a system of formally appointing judges in the lower courts and then making them stand for retention. In Nassau, the insiders say, it's true that county chairman Mondello controls the current process of informally appointing judges. But in the city, for example, the powerbrokers are Democrats, and they would be unwilling, to say the least, to give up their power just so the Nassau Democrats could cut into Mondello's authority.
Besides, Levine's official title as "president of the Board of Judges" actually carries little weight, according to the Office of Court Administration. Mai Yee, a spokeswoman for the OCA, says of Levine's job title: "Anachronistic is probably the right word for it." She says that when the Unified Court System was set up in 1977 to try to make some sense out of New York's Colonial-era judiciary, it took over court administration. McCabe, the county's administrative judge, and Wexner, the supervising judge, have the real authorityeven if they don't have the nice office that Levine is about to hand over to Raab.
So if Raab wants to reclaim the original duties of his new office, he'll need help from people like DiNapoli. But the Democratic boss is noncommittal. "I'm sure I'll be talking to Ira about it," he says.
DiNapoli, however, isn't talking tough. "There are so many more Democrats [in judgeships] that, by definition, there's an increase in authority," he says. "And the judges have had very cooperative relations with McCabethe court system tends to be more collegial."
Nothing, though, was more collegial than the fundraising letter the machine's lawyers sent out last summer, when they were brimming with confidence that their pal, former Mondello aide Denise Sher, would win the job of First District Court judge. Not even thinking that Raab would beat Sher, the letter noted that the job "also holds the responsibilities of Supervising Judge of the District Court."
Tell it to the judge.