By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
Yet he had no problem brandishing the calling card of Silver's friendship, or dialing up county leaders and other powerbrokers, some of whom, including Senate Assistant Majority Leader and onetime GOP boss Spano, were receiving lucrative patronage assignments from his courts. He even had no hesitation about going forward with the deal though he knew it would result in the elevation of an already tarnished judge, Alessandro, who may soon be repudiated by the Conduct Commission.
In fact, just as he began his efforts to secure a Supreme Court slot in 2000, he opened an elaborate office for himself in state space, across the street from the White Plains courthouse, and began spending a lot of time there, deeply involving himself in the judicial politics of that district. Shortly before that, he abruptly asked the district's administrative judge, Angelo Ingrassia, a Republican from a small county in the district, to step down a year before his mandatory retirement age. He even gave Ingrassia a car and chauffeur for his final year to induce him to do it.
He then split Ingrassia's job into two positions and gave both to Spano allies—one a Republican and the other an influential Democrat from Westchester, the populous center of the district. The new administrative judge, Frank Nicolai, denied in a Voice interview that he "campaigned for Lippman" in the long-running effort to secure a Supreme Court seat, as some sources contend. That would be a violation of judicial ethics, which only permit judges to campaign for themselves. "If someone asked," Nicolai said, "I'd say he'd be an outstanding judge." Asked if he might have initiated some of those conversations, Nicolai added: "I might have."
Nicolai presided at Lippman's 2006 swearing-in, where Lippman, Silver, and his other prestigious friends were so self-congratulatory it was almost as if he had actually won an election—when all he'd really done was collect chits and lean on the party bosses who'd installed him. With all the editorial hubbub about the judicial nominating process in New York, spurred by the federal court decisions that the process was an unconstitutional infringement of the franchise, Lippman the reformer had inadvertently established by his own experience how poisonously anti-democratic it was.
Yet, at his induction, he called his campaign "a unique experience," and even praised the mix of elective and appointive positions in New York's judicial system. Indeed, he has proven, from his Supreme Court fix to his culminating appointment as chief judge, that he is the master of both processes, each with their own brand of incestuous networking. If that is merit, then Lippman is what many of his supporters see him as, the embodiment of the merit system in our courts.
Lippman wanted a Supreme Court spot to make himself legally eligible for appointment to a second-tier appellate post, which he saw as a vital stepping-stone to the top-tier Court of Appeals. He had to do it then because his other sponsor, Chief Judge Judith Kaye, would have to step down when she turned 70 in 2008, and even a brief stint on the appellate bench would give him an opportunity to build a record as a scholarly jurist, though it would be quite a lean one in comparison with competitors who'd actually written opinions over lifetimes.
But his timely and controversial "election" was hardly the only awkwardly abetted step on his unprecedented career ascension. Prior to it, Lippman had only been a Court of Claims judge—an appointment bestowed by Governor George Pataki a few months into his first year in office (1995), when the Democrat Lippman managed to secure a spot despite the hunger of Republicans eager to grab judicial patronage slots after 12 years of Democratic rule.
At the time, Lippman was the top deputy in the Office of Court Administration, and all he had going for him were his Silver ties; an assiduously cultivated friendship with GOP Senate Judiciary Chair Jim Lack; and the backing of Judge Kaye, who argued that Lippman should hold a judicial title since she intended to install him, as she did a few months later, as the chief administrative judge.
Spano, who had just become the Republican county leader in Westchester in 1995, met Lippman in the few days between Pataki's appointment and the Senate's confirmation. Since Lippman was technically a candidate from Spano's home turf, he had to sign off and did, endorsing Lippman on the Senate floor and launching what he concedes became a series of efforts on Lippman's behalf that he would make over the coming years. Three of the pivotal party brass—Westchester Conservative Gail Burns, Rockland County Republican Vince Reda, and Cavallo—were on Spano-engineered Senate payrolls when Lippman collected his cross-endorsements in 2005, and the senator concedes that he spoke to them, as well as to Westchester Republican RoseMarie Panio, a close ally. "I'm sure I expressed support for Judge Lippman," Spano tells the Voice. "Anytime his name was up, I was an enthusiastic supporter."
In fact, Spano, who was widely viewed as the Senate Republican closest to Silver, confirmed his call to Alpert and acknowledged that he'd pushed midnight legislation through in 2005 and earlier, aided by Brodsky, that created new Supreme Court seats in the judicial district covering Westchester. The bill in 2005 was introduced by Pataki on June 24 and passed by both houses that day. While Spano said he didn't think "it would be fair to say" the seats were "created for anyone," he concedes that "Lippman's name came up" when the bills were adopted. Lippman needed more than one bill because the cross-endorsement deals with the Republicans fell apart, for reasons having nothing to do with him (once the Republicans demanded four Republican cross-endorsements for Lippman). He even went so far as to be nominated by the Democrats in 2002, only to file a formal declination when the deal with the GOP broke down.