The lawyers who operate the gears and levers of the vaunted Nassau GOP machine were feeling pretty cocky last spring about continuing their century of one-party rule. On June 14, Brian J. Davis, a member of Certilman Balin Adler & Hyman, the law firm where GOP boss Joe Mondello hangs a shingle, sent out a campaign letter on behalf of Denise Sher, a confidant of Mondello’s who was running for judge of the First District Court, a job that also carries a supervisory title.
Davis, speaking on behalf of the “Friends of Judge Denise L. Sher,” asked that lawyers send checks to the campaign. If they wanted, recipients of the letter were urged to send in “Do Me a Favor” cards to the judge and her friends.
And what a list of friends. Listed on the letterhead was Chairman Arnold Palleschi, an executive leader of the party. Among the 50 other lawyers listed were some of the party’s heaviest lawyers (including Peter Bee, Steve Eisman and Nick De Sibio), various bar officials (like past county bar president Arlene Zalayet and Davis himself, a past president of the Nassau County Criminal Courts Bar Association) and many lawyers who have depended on the party’s judges for work in the county’s archaic Assigned Counsel program (including elected official Marty Massell and practitioners Amy Haber, Fred Braverman and Bill Rost).
Can’t we all just be friends? Apparently not during the chill of autumn. Sher was soundly defeated last week by Democrat Ira Raab in one of the most stunning upsets of the machine. So now you figure that Raab, a veteran jurist from Woodmere who also holds business degrees, will be the supervising judge of District Court, right? Not so fast.
Nowhere is the machine’s power more evident than in the judiciary. The pipe-puffing editorial writers at Newsday sniffed in recent days that the Democrats’ surprising victories in the judgeship elections (other Democrats came to power with Raab, and party hacks like Bill Hodges were kicked off the bench) didn’t mean much because judges shouldn’t be elected anyway. Reformers point to other states and other counties that have merit selection-and merit retention-of judges, where judges are picked by panels, not directly by pols. Those systems still are political, but at least in those other places judges don’t rake in campaign contributions from lawyers who are bound to try cases in front of them.
The daily paper’s harrumphers ignore the fact that New York state’s current system of electing judges probably won’t go away soon but that it may yield reform-and perhaps even the ouster of County Albatross Tom Gulotta.
On the other hand, getting the machine to relinquish its tradition-bound swapping of power, patronage and money could be more difficult than prying a cat off a screen door.
Banished to the Bench
Three years ago, Sam Levine, a liberal Democrat, won the First District Court race after a lifetime of trying to gain a judgeship. He was the first Democrat to win the coveted post, and he assumed that he would now be in charge of the county’s 26 District Court judges. He was wrong. The Republican judges, including machine operative Edward McCabe, suddenly insisted that the title of “President of the Board of Judges” meant nothing. They shut Levine out of the power loop and retained control of the courthouse and its 400 employees. Among those workers are the powerful unions of support employees that regularly contribute thousands of dollars to the Nassau GOP.
Because Levine turned 70, he had to relinquish his judgeship in mid-term, and Sher was picked by Mondello to regain control of the office and its perks. The machine was so confident Sher would win that suddenly the job became once again all-powerful: As Davis’ campaign letter noted, the First District judge “holds the responsibilities of supervising judge of the District Court and president of the Board of Judges.”
Raab aims to hold them to their word. The fight between him and the machine ought to be a beauty, even if 99 percent of it takes place behind closed doors in Mineola, Albany and New York City. That’s because Raab not only advocates reforms the Nassau machine considers unthinkable, but also has a history of publicly clashing with the once-impenetrable GOP establishment.
The best recent example, according to documents obtained by the Long Island Voice, revolved around something called the “Gulotta-Christ Award.” Don’t get carried away; it’s named after Tom Gulotta’s father, the late Frank Gulotta, and deceased machine notable Marcus Christ. Last April 27, the Judicial Section of the Nassau County Bar Association was to present the annual award to Joe Mondello. You’ve gotta love the gall of the machine’s lawyers and judges: In its press release, the bar said of Mondello: “No one in the last twenty years has left a greater impression on the judiciary in Nassau County.” Ain’t it the truth? Since becoming county boss 17 years ago, Mondello has appointed a slew of judges to posts that they then win in elections. Shortly after Mondello took over the party from convicted felon Joe Margiotta, he ended Margiotta’s practice of cross-endorsements, meaning that sitting Democratic judges could no longer receive endorsements from the GOP. That ended the careers of several notable judges and ensured that the GOP would dominate the county judiciary. How nice for the judges to honor a political boss for such important work.
Shortly after receiving the invitation to the dinner, Ira Raab, at the time a Second District Court judge, scrawled a note to County Court Judge Joe Calabrese, chairman of the bar’s Judicial Section: “Joe: It sometimes amazes me how political the Nassau County judicial system really is. [To bestow the honor] only solidifies my belief that the Nassau County judiciary and the Nassau County Republican Party may be one and the same. Since I am not a Republican, I guess that I would not fit in as a welcomed participant at this dinner-unless, of course, [Mondello] is ready to endorse my candidacy for the [state] Supreme Court on a bi-partisan basis at that dinner. Please let me know his intentions so that I can issue my $36 check with all due speed.”
In a later note, Raab suggested to Calabrese that the judges “should be inviting judicial scholars, law professors and judges from higher courts to address us with important, timely and significant messages about the judiciary and the law. Our section should be non-partisan and, especially, it should not be blatantly political.”
Just getting warmed up, Raab urged broad reforms and pointed out that Mondello himself “does not support merit selection and merit retention [of judges] unless, of course, he makes the selection. Merit selection and merit retention of sitting qualified judges, or a non-political selection, appointment or election process, will assure a greater independence of the judiciary. If this cannot be accomplished, then cross-endorsements of qualified sitting judges and judicial candidates is the next best method of serving the public.”
Raab wound up spending his $36 on something else.
Kicking the Man Upstairs
Ira Raab has already started lobbying for the return of the powers of the First District Court judgeship. He says that shortly after the election, he called Judge Joe Traficanti, one of the top administrative judges in what New York state calls its Unified Court System, to talk with him about the matter.
“I was told by Judge Traficanti that I will be ‘in the loop,'” says Raab. “And I was told by Judge McCabe that I was going to be consulted. I’m very confident that I’ll have no problem.”
Last week’s vote, says Raab, was “overwhelming testimony that people want change. It meant that the people wanted a shift in the judiciary.”
He credits sturdy campaigning and, of course, the financial mess that turned many voters against the machine. “And I also think people read Newsday‘s series on judges and yours as well,” he tells the Voice.
Some of Raab’s impact, he says, may be immediate upon his taking office next year. “I want people to know that the government and the courts are now open in Nassau County,” he says. “You are welcome to come in.”
More specifically, such business-as-usual practices as the courts’ tradition of allowing judges to assign cases to lawyers they know and may like-some of whom may be contributors to their political campaigns-could be nearing an end. Raab is an advocate of a strict rotation of so-called Assigned Counsel cases, in which lawyers are chosen to represent indigent clients when legal-aid lawyers are overburdened or have conflicts. Under the present system, many of the lawyers who got the most work or most money from the system were those who contributed to judges’ campaigns [Here come the judges, Oct. 28]. Raab says he wants to take favoritism out of the system by instituting a strict rotation system, which is what is used in New York City courts. In his current court, he assigns cases to Hofstra law students.
“When I get the powers back,” he says, “I will have a rotation system. You watch, you’ll see.”
True to his liberal roots, Raab also has a plan for helping teen drunken drivers avoid jail by having them clean up the courthouse in Hempstead and other locales instead of rotting in jail. “I’ve already spoken with the League of Women Voters about perhaps helping supervise the kids,” he says.
That will take some persuading, as will everything else Raab wants to do. But a new era of horse-trading, including palaver between two political parties, may be emerging in Nassau.
Court insiders note the political reality is that the judges in Albany and New York City who control the court system represent a careful balance of power between Republicans and Democrats. With the Democrats suddenly a factor in Nassau, the judiciary bigwigs may take such Dems as Raab more seriously, especially because other Democratic judges also were elected. Nassau’s Democrats also have their own power bases. County boss Tom DiNapoli is an influential assemblyman in Albany, as head of the Local Government committee in a legislative body the Democrats control. DiNapoli is said by various pundits to be tight with Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver. Ira Raab, for his part, says that years ago he himself was in the same Lower East Side Democratic club as Silver.
Some insiders point out that the elections left five District Court openings and that, instead of Joe Mondello’s machine making the decisions on who will fill the spots, DiNapoli and Mondello will be doing the kind of backroom swaps that politicians in normal two-party systems commonly do. Two competing machines, after all, are better than one.
Part of that backroom dealing, according to one scenario, would have the Republicans finally convincing Gulotta to take a spot on the state Supreme Court, perhaps in exchange for even more Democrats being appointed to the open District Court seats.
DiNapoli won’t confirm that he’s even about to start negotiating with Mondello, though that will be inevitable. And he sounds cautious when asked about the chances of Raab’s retaking of the powers of the judgeship he was elected to. He says the Nassau Democrats have to focus on “organizational issues” right now, not to mention money: The party’s shortage of campaign funds probably cost it at least a couple of more victories in the County Legislature, which it now controls 10-9.
The money problems may work themselves out. The public will know later this month, when the first post-election campaign-contribution reports from the parties come rolling in. Now that the Democrats have seized a majority in the county legislature and sturdy footholds in the town governments of Hempstead and Oyster Bay, many of the law firms, businesses and unions that formerly lavished practically all their political money on the GOP machine will probably start throwing some the Democrats’ way.
“I sure as hell hope so,” says DiNapoli. “We’re $60,000 in debt.”