Judicial Fever in Brooklyn


When the Brooklyn Democratic organization went looking for someone to fill a civil court seat last year, its search went no further than its own offices. There, party leader Clarence Norman’s eyes settled on Robin Garson, the wife of Gerald Garson, the party’s former treasurer who had moved up, as they say on Court Street, to Supreme Court. Robin Garson was a lawyer who had long displayed her loyalty by helping Norman’s Kings County Democratic Committee knock insurgents off the ballot. The prize handed Robin Garson had special political value because, unlike other slots, hers had no opponent requiring a tedious and expensive primary.

Norman displayed no such courtesy to an incumbent civil court judge named Margarita Lopez Torres, who had already won high marks during her first term on the bench and was seeking re-election, a bid that is normally automatic for sitting judges in Brooklyn. Unlike Garson, however, Lopez Torres had defied the Democratic machine by refusing to hire the daughter of one of Norman’s closest allies as her law secretary. As a result, while the rookie Garson was given a free ride to the $125,000-a-year judicial post, the veteran Lopez Torres was forced to campaign all summer against party-backed candidates, raising her own funds and gathering her own volunteers.

The laugh was on Norman, however, when Lopez Torres and another rebel defeated both of his primary candidates. Norman’s sole civil court winner was Garson, who, without opposition, cruised to victory.

Last week, Brooklyn District Attorney Charles J. Hynes, announcing that he had convened a grand jury to investigate corruption in the selection process of judicial candidates, invoked Lopez Torres’s underdog victory as an example of how democracy can and should work when the public gets a chance to know the candidates. “This was a woman who beat the organization,” said Hynes.

Hynes’s announcement came on the same day that Justice Gerald Garson was arraigned on charges of official misconduct for allegedly having taken cash, meals, and cigars in exchange for handing down favorable rulings from his Supreme Court post.

A short man, with a passing resemblance to an older and dispirited Martin Sheen, Garson stood behind Hynes’s tall frame at the arraignment, his shoulders slumped. The night before, when he had surrendered to the D.A., Garson had been represented by Barry Kamins, an influential Brooklyn attorney who serves on Norman’s super-secretive judicial selection panel and who also represented Judge Victor Barron, who pleaded guilty to bribe charges of his own in July.

The felony complaints on which Garson and six others were arrested depict a shabby series of schemes in which justice was sold inside the courthouse. A schlepper named Nissim Elmann, an electronics merchandiser, reputedly cruised the hallways looking for dissatisfied litigants. He in turn referred them to a politically wired divorce lawyer, Paul Siminovsky, who openly bragged of his close ties to Garson. While cases are supposed to be randomly assigned under court rules, a group of crooked clerks and the uniformed court officer who stood watch in Garson’s courtroom allegedly steered the paying cases onto Garson’s docket sheet. Their rewards came in the form of cash and, on several occasions, new telephones handed out from the trunk of Elmann’s car, according to the charges. The more significant part of the case, however, began after Hynes’s prosecutors confronted Garson with the evidence of his crimes, much of it gathered from a court-approved video camera they had installed in the tiny robing room behind his courtroom on the seventh floor of 210 Joralemon Street. According to sources familiar with the case, and reported in detail by Murray Weiss of the New York Post, the judge agreed to cooperate. He acknowledged that the judicial selection process is bought and sold, and, most damagingly, agreed to wear a wire on others in the political food chain that produces those nominations.

In Brooklyn, these days, the top of that food chain is Clarence Norman, the assemblyman who has ruled the borough’s Democratic Party since 1990, when former party boss and borough president Howard Golden stepped down after new rules barred state elected officials from holding both party and elected posts.

Garson’s information on the making of judges was considered impeccable by Hynes’s office, which was well aware of his close ties to the county leader. Like that of his wife, Garson’s promotion to the bench came after years of dutiful homage to the party. As an attorney in private practice, Gerald Garson helped raise tens of thousands of dollars from the yellow taxi industry, whose biggest titans were long represented by his former law firm. With Garson’s help, taxi cash flowed into the coffers of all of the party’s official committees as well as to the campaigns of Norman and his closest allies.

Garson, still a lawyer and a party district leader at the time, had made himself an even closer Norman confidant when he supported the assemblyman’s bid to take over when Golden stepped down. Garson’s move was considered crucial to Norman’s victory for two reasons. For one, he brought key support from mostly white and Jewish sections of south Brooklyn, where Norman, a black leader from Bedford-Stuyvesant, needed backing. Even more remarkably, Garson defected from the banner of his cousin Michael Garson, another party leader who was making his own strong bid for the party reins.

According to those who know both men, the relationship between the cousins never recovered. But Michael Garson later got a consolation prize—party backing for a Supreme Court post. Five years later, cousin Gerald joined him there. But even as Gerald Garson was donning his black polyester robes, he continued to be a major influence on Norman’s thinking when it came to party nominations for the courts. This was evident in 1997, the same year that Gerald Garson was elected to Supreme Court, when Norman—badly in need of a civil court candidate after his own choice was forced to drop out—-turned to a lawyer in Garson’s law firm named Karen Rothenberg.

As James Bradley reported in the Voice that year, the key requirements were that the candidate should be a female attorney with a Jewish name—the proven winning-est combination on a borough-wide ballot—and, most importantly, have the ability to raise at least $100,000 to pay for the race. In a playbook written by the late Brooklyn democratic boss Meade Esposito, the money was to go for highly paid, party-selected political consultants and printers. Those vendors, in turn, made their own large contributions to the party. Gerald Garson’s brief stint as an informer began in late March and continued until early last week, when, faced with the likelihood that the Post was about to expose its investigation, the D.A.’s office brought it to a quick end. Two nights before his arrest, Garson called his family together to tell them he was about to be charged. Word from that gathering radiated across political Brooklyn.

Judicial appointments are one of the last strongholds of patronage in New York. Thanks to inter-party cooperation between Democrats and Republicans who divide the available judgeships between them and then cross-designate each other’s candidates, the positions amount to virtual lifetime sinecures. In addition there are hundreds of clerks and law secretaries to be selected, posts with similar levels of job security and benefits. It is because of these basic political facts of life that no serious effort has ever been made to reform the way the state’s top judges are selected. The Daily News‘ editorial page has been on a 15-month-long crusade about this issue, hammering especially hard at Norman’s Brooklyn. After Hynes’s remarkable announcement about his newly convened grand jury, the paper expressed deep skepticism and called for an independent prosecutor.

Yet the News itself was silent last year when Lopez Torres, a former Legal Services attorney, became the first-ever incumbent civil court judge to be denied endorsement by her party and was forced to wage her own campaign for re-election. She apparently wasn’t good enough for the crusaders at the Daily News, who declined to endorse her.