$140,000 for a Judgeship?

Civil Court's Maxine Archer Says Her Robe Is Not for Sale

From then on, Archer's re-election chances seemed bedeviled. She told friends that all of her contacts who associated with the congressman disavowed their ties to her. She says she then discovered that Towns and Alter had thrown their support behind Betty Williams, an official at the Board of Education who has no judicial experience. "Why criticize me for looking for work?" asks Alter. "It's what I do. Nobody can say I'm tied to the county organization." Archer fought her former allies, objecting to Williams's petition to get on the ballot. Alter, who by now was representing Williams, tried to invalidate Archer's petition. "Why should she get away without a race?" sneers Alter, who has a track record of running insurgents against the county machine. Both candidates later agreed to withdraw their challenges.

Archer switched allegiance, putting her re-election hopes in the hands of Assemblyman Clarence Norman, the Democratic county leader who has been battling Towns for two years over the rumor that Towns intends to bequeath his congressional seat to his son Darryl. In 1998, members of the Coalition for Community Empowerment, the mostly black political machine in Brooklyn, called for "an end to the increasing tension and separation" between Norman and Towns. "There has been relative peace among elected officials in Brooklyn, and Congressman Towns and Assemblyman Norman are in communication with each other, and appear to have a working relationship," the coalition stated in a January 12 letter to Councilmember Una Clarke, who was engaged in her own squabbles with Congressman Major Owens. But the so-called truce between Norman and Towns has not held, and the fight over Judge Archer's candidacy could imperil any attempt at reconciliation.

Asked about Archer's charges that Alter tried to extort money from her, a Towns protégé, who asked not to be identified, replied, "The Mitch Alter types often act independently, and elected officials are often forced to defend guys like Mitch because of long-standing relationships." He says that despite Archer's break with Towns, the congressman's son still tried to help her. "Darryl Towns carried Maxine Archer's petitions even though she did not give him one red cent."

Juris prudence: Judge Maxine brings the gavel down on patronage.
Juris prudence: Judge Maxine brings the gavel down on patronage.

The once widely supported Judge Archer now has a host of political enemies because of the "prominent politician [she] now seeks to demonize," another Towns backer asserts. Archer, he suggests, panicked, and should have waited for Towns to act. "The judge may have been anxious and impatient, jumping ship too fast."

Questions about political bosses who demand huge sums of money from candidates who want desperately to get elected are not all that uncommon. In Brooklyn, that's the way Meade Esposito did things. But it would be surprising if powerful politicians like Edolphus Towns and Clarence Norman were unable to affect the outcome of campaigns in their districts on the basis of their own influence. However, that's how it's done, others contend, and what happened in the case of Judge Archer may be deceptive. "What did Norman ask of her?" Alter queries. "What did she agree to do for Norman? I haven't got 10 cents from the lady."

The process by which judges are "made" in New York is a complicated matter. "It has long been an open secret that New York City courts are patronage mills where party loyalty buys judgeships and judges reward party hacks with lucrative assignments," the Daily News said in an editorial condemning the practice.

In January, Mayor Rudy Giuliani encouraged the state's chief judge, Judith Kaye, to launch an investigation after two disgruntled Democratic Party officials, lawyers Arnold Ludwig and Thomas Garry, admitted that judges hand out assignments based on patronage. Ludwig and Garry complained in a letter that they were being frozen out of plum court work by another attorney, Ravi Batra, despite "unquestioned loyalty" to the party. Batra, who steered jobs to his own law firm, is a friend and former law partner of Clarence Norman. As county leader, Norman puts judges on the ballot, and questions about the county organization's alleged role in the selling of judgeships have been circulating for years. Even though it is clearly unethical, the practice may not be illegal.

In predominantly Democratic areas like Brooklyn, lawyers interested in becoming judges often align themselves with elected officials who assist them in running their campaigns. These candidates often piggyback on slates with politicians who themselves are seeking re-election or political bosses battling for control of key districts. And if a district is big enough, the judicial hopeful is injected in several campaigns. As a result, an unholy alliance is formed.

"Of course some Democratic politicians have broad electoral influence, making it much more likely that a judicial candidate would be elected if that candidate were to align himself to one of the powerhouses in the party," says a political consultant who has advised both Towns and Norman in the past. "In all cases, the candidate for judicial office provides his or her political benefactor with money for their races. So the phrase 'buying a judgeship' is misleading; it should be called 'financing a campaign.' "

What the judicial candidate is paying for is the expertise of the professional campaign staff of the elected official, the consultant emphasizes. He says the money goes to consultants and community workers who distribute flyers in housing developments, print palm cards and campaign posters, and organize town hall meetings. Once elected, judges pick loyal lawyers as receivers for properties that have been foreclosed. Such assignments bring hefty fees. These lawyers in turn hire other lawyers to help manage the properties, and they share in the fees.

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