The Judge Who Said No
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.
But the decision to disinherit López Torreswho, in 1992, became the city's first Hispanic woman elected to the civil court benchhas 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 Lopezwho 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.
López Torres said her own efforts to obtain the party's backing for promotion to the higher court were fruitless. She said she had written several times to Norman and the party's screening panel but was never informed of her status. As a result, she was receptive when a group of party insurgents, led by former assemblyman Tony Genovesi and Congressman Ed Towns, approached her and asked to place her name before that year's judicial convention.
The convention normally considers only a single slate of candidates, submitted by the county leader, and the delegates usually unanimously endorse them. "It's a Soviet-style election," said Gary Tilzer, a veteran political consultant who is working on López Torres's campaign.
The rebel slate was soundly defeated, and, after the death of Genovesi in 1999, Towns and the other insurgents had what Norman calls a "rapprochement" and are currently allied with the leader. López Torres is the lone exception.
She said that two days before the convention, Norman called her in court. "He was very upset, insisting that I remove my name from the slate," she said. "He said if I didn't, the party would never forget it."
Norman denied it, saying he has a policy of never "talking politics" with judges. "Absolutely not, I never called her," he said. "With all due respect, even if I was disposed to call her on a political issue, common sense indicates I call her on her cell phone or at home. I am not going to have a political conversation with a judge in court."
Nor had he ever spoken to López Torres about her law secretary, he said. The party sends résumés of candidates to new judges, he said, but the selection is up to them. "I am going to say the lady lied," said Norman. "A bald-faced lie."
Assemblyman Lopez also heatedly denied ever promoting his daughter's candidacy to López Torres. "She is making that up," he said. Lopez said his daughter had won her employment as a law secretary as the result of "volunteer work" for the county organization.
Lopez said he been disappointed to learn that López Torres hadn't originally hired a Latino to work with her (her current aide is Hispanic). And he was also unhappy when she never conveyed sympathy to him after he was diagnosed with a severe illness several years ago. His irritation deepened when he read a letter in City Limits magazine by López Torres's husband, Matthew Chachere, criticizing him for endorsing Mayor Rudy Giuliani for re-election in 1997. Lopez, who is currently working hard for Sikowitz, said he found the letter infuriating. "Her husband wrote that I should be challenged for re-election. What am I supposed to say? Thank you, Margarita?"
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