On January 14, a 10-year incumbent civil court judge in Brooklyn with a sterling record on the bench mailed a letter to the chairman of the panel that screens applicants for the Democratic Party’s judicial nominations.
“This is to formally declare my candidacy for the Supreme Court of New York in Kings County,” wrote Judge Margarita Lopez Torres. “I look forward to your communication regarding my candidacy.”
Two days later, the panel chairman, a veteran Court Street attorney and party loyalist named Jerome Karp, rushed out a response. It was a breathless, two-sentence piece of lawyering amounting to the political equivalent of “Don’t call us, we’ll call you.”
“I have your letter of January 14th instant and hasten to advise that it is not necessary for you to declare your candidacy to me or my Committee. Candidates are only considered by our Committee upon referral of the County leader,” wrote Karp.
Last week, Karp, who has been a steady beneficiary of appointments from Brooklyn’s judiciary and whose specialty is representing lawyers cited for misconduct, refused to discuss the letter or the apparently iron-clad hold that party officials have on how his committee makes its selections.
“He won’t speak to you,” said a secretary. “He’s not going to comment about his functions.”
Karp’s non-comment came on Monday, the same day that one of the successful graduates of his screening committee, state supreme court justice Victor Barron, pleaded guilty to shaking down a lawyer who had appeared before him on behalf of a litigant in a multi-million-dollar injury lawsuit. Barron admitted to taking an initial $18,000 bribe from the lawyer and demanding $115,000 more, just to sign the settlement agreement to allow an infant severely injured in an automobile accident to receive compensation.
Barron faces from three to nine years in prison when he is sentenced in September. His guilty plea is only the latest in a series of embarrassing revelations about the conduct of Brooklyn’s party-backed judges, ranging from official admonishments for doling out patronage appointments to politically connected lawyers to charges of perjury against one judge. But the system that selected Barron and the others, one that relies heavily on party loyalty and pays only nominal attention to judicial abilities, is still in full flower.
Brooklyn county leader Assemblyman Clarence Norman found nothing embarrassing about Karp’s letter.
“It’s my screening committee,” said Norman. “If I know there is someone we are not going to endorse, then what’s the point?”
None, apparently. Not only did Norman refuse to consider Lopez Torres, a former legal services attorney with a lengthy résumé of representing needy New York families, for elevation to state supreme court, he also refused to endorse her for re-election this year to her civil court post (“The Judge Who Said No,” Voice August 6). It is the first time in the recent history of the Kings County Democratic Party that a sitting judge elected with party support has been denied re-endorsement. It is not for any failings on her part in her service as a judge. By all accounts, including those of political detractors like Norman, Lopez Torres has been an able judge since her election in 1992, serving at different times on the family, criminal, and housing court benches.
Instead, her problems stem from several run-ins with the Democratic Party’s business-as-usual system of judicial selection. After her election, she said in an interview, she refused to hire a law secretary recommended by the party. A few years later, she rebuffed a similar demand from another influential Brooklyn pol, state Assemblyman Vito Lopez, who is not related to the judge. Finally, in 1997, after repeated refusals by Norman to consider her for advancement to the supreme court, she allowed her name to be placed in nomination by a party faction opposed to Norman.
Norman and Lopez vigorously deny ever asking Lopez Torres to hire anyone. But they say that her brief alliance with the leader’s political foes put her beyond the pale.
“Judges are supposed to stay out of political fights,” said Norman. “Why the hell did she get involved in a partisan battle?”
Lopez Torres, however, said she had no intention of getting involved in politics. She was merely trying to find a way to place her name before the party’s judicial convention. “I thought there was nothing inappropriate about it,” she said in an interview. “I had written repeatedly to Assemblyman Norman and his committee and received no replies,” she said.
Norman acknowledged that Lopez Torres had been rejected in the past and that his decision to deny her renomination to the civil court was intended to send a message about party loyalty. “I feel we have a right to exercise our decision not to [endorse],” he said.
In a second part of the message, Norman has thrown party support behind another Court Street lawyer, Robin Garson. In addition to being married to a sitting supreme court judge, Garson has represented Norman and the party in crucial ballot challenges to nominating petitions filed by foes of the county leader.
The last county leader to opt not to endorse a sitting judge was disgraced former Bronx Democratic leader Stanley Friedman. In 1983, Friedman refused to give party support to two incumbent supreme court judges, both of whom, like Lopez Torres, had good records on the bench. The move set good-government advocates wailing. The state’s Supreme Court Justices Association denounced the move as an attack on judicial independence. The New York Times editorialized twice about the matter.
“Judges may now be more inclined than ever to decide cases or make patronage appointments in ways that please party officials,” the newspaper stated on September 23 of that year. A month later, on October 31, the paper repeated its blast at Friedman, then still more than two years away from his indictment on corruption charges.
“Since political leaders choose the candidates for apathetic voters to ratify at election time, only party loyalists have a chance to get on the bench. But once there, supporters of the system have long argued, staying there requires only decent performance, not continuing kowtowing to the pols. No more,” the Times‘ editorialists wrote.
Some Brooklyn officials have already quietly raised their voices in objection to the party’s disavowal of Lopez Torres. City Councilman David Yassky and State Assemblyman James Brennan have spoken out, and some 20 elected officials have endorsed her for re-election.
One of them, District Leader Elizabeth Rose Daly, from downtown Brooklyn, has also called on Norman to allow the way judges are currently selected to be discussed.
“Confidence in the judiciary is one of the underpinnings of our democratic system of government and right now, public trust in the Brooklyn judicial selection system has been seriously eroded,” wrote Daly in a February 26 letter to Norman. “We must objectively examine our practices, or suffer the consequences of others doing so without our participation, because they see us as running a sham operation.”