The Judge Who Said No

Brooklyn's Democratic Party Boss Punishes a Rebel

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 López 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.

On her own: Civil Court Judge Margarita López Torres on the campaign trail
photo: Andy Kropa
On her own: Civil Court Judge Margarita López Torres on the campaign trail

But the decision to disinherit López 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, López 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 López 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, López 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 López 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 López 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 López Torres this fall.

A former legal services attorney, López 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 López 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.

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