The class of 1997, State Supreme Court, Kings County, included six new judges, all listed on the Democratic Party line and all popularly elected. By last week, a third of the class had been removed in disgrace, a crime rate far higher than that of the meanest ghetto school.
On Thursday, Judge Reynold Mason was ordered off the bench by the Court of Appeals, which upheld an ethics panel’s findings that he had abused an escrow account and cheated his brother-in-law and his landlord, all while dispensing justice to litigants before him in court. Mason’s ejection came seven days after fellow judge Gerald Garson stood in the dock in criminal court, accused of fixing cases in his own courtroom a few blocks away.
The class’s misconduct ratio is even higher if Judge Victor Barron, convicted last year of demanding a bribe to sign off on a child’s injury settlement, is added to the roster. Barron was also on the ballot in 1997, running for re-election to civil court. At the time, he was already serving as an acting Supreme Court Justice and won election to the upper bench the following year.
All of the disgraced judges were originally rated “approved” by the local bar association. Those findings constituted the chief defense of the beleaguered Brooklyn Democratic Party leader, Clarence Norman, as he stood outside the ribbon-festooned ballroom of the Marriott Brooklyn Hotel where his annual awards dinner was under way last Thursday evening.
“You tell me a system that can predict the integrity and honesty of judges six years after they are elected,” said the county leader, seemingly agitated that the questions were being raised during his own party, where awards were given to Comptroller Alan Hevesi and four local entrepreneurs. Judge Garson has only been accused, he reminded his questioners, and thus is “entitled to the presumption of innocence.”
Garson has pleaded not guilty, but in claims yet to be disputed, law enforcement sources have said that the judge wore a wire for nearly a month in an effort to gain leniency and to produce evidence of corruption in the selection of the borough’s judges. Garson’s actions have led to the two worst words in Brooklyn politics —”grand jury.” Immediately after Garson’s arraignment on April 24, District Attorney Charles J. Hynes said he had convened one to delve into possible wrongdoing in judicial selection. That is fine by him, insisted Norman.
“I think it’s a good thing that there’s a grand jury,” he said. “I welcome it. I think it will finally put to rest all this talk about the purchasing and selling of judgeships.”
Moreover, added Norman, he was satisfied with the current process of selecting and nominating candidates for the borough’s highest courts—in which party delegates, mostly allied with the leadership, meet in convention in late September to nominate a slate of candidates put forth by Norman. The nominees are then overwhelmingly elected in November by an electorate enlightened by little more than the hints of ethnicity and gender contained in the names on the ballot.
“We have a process; it is open, it is accessible,” he said. Asked why he had only last month publicly released the names of those on his own longtime judicial screening committee, a panel appointed by him and charged with evaluating candidates, Norman said it had all been a misunderstanding. “Anyone who wanted to know who was on that panel, all they needed to do was ask,” he said.
Downstairs, in the hotel’s driveway, some two dozen Democratic Party dissenters held a small rally to present a different political picture. “Justice Is Not a Family Affair,” said one sign. “Order in the Court” was another. One of the group donned a judge’s black robe and a pair of plastic handcuffs, while clasping a $20 bill and several cigars—a reference to one of the modes of payoff Garson is alleged to have received. Calling themselves the Coalition for an Independent Judiciary, the group’s ranks include nine of the borough’s 42 Democratic district leaders and another nine elected officials. Among them are State Senator Martin Connor and Assembly Members Jim Brennan, Roger Green, and Joan Millman, all of whom were too busy fighting the budget battle in Albany to attend the rally or the dinner.
“We need to restore order in the courts and trust in Brooklyn’s judicial system,” said Alan Fleishman, a district leader representing a swath of brownstone Brooklyn in Park Slope. “Brooklynites,” he added, “should have the right to know that justice can only be won, not bought.”
The coalition’s reform platform calls for a more diverse screening panel, an open process for candidates, and a role for all of the party’s leaders in selecting nominees.
Upstairs, Norman said the reformers didn’t need to call a press conference to send their message. “All they had to do was raise it at the next executive committee,” he said. “We’re open to all proposals.”
Inside the ballroom, at Norman’s party, the mysteries of Brooklyn judge-making were even more apparent. More than 25 sitting jurists and a greater number of applicants moved from table to table in a swirl of politicking. Just inside the door, leaning against the wall and sipping an imported beer, stood Michael Pesce, one of the borough’s top judges. The former administrative judge of Brooklyn’s Supreme Court, Pesce was elevated to presiding justice of the Appellate Division last year, just days after Judge Barron’s arrest, amid calls for state officials to get a greater grip on things in the courthouse. Pesce, a onetime insurgent, long ago made peace with the borough’s politics without losing his reputation for straight talk. Asked why he and so many other judges, all of whom are expected to remain above politics, were present at the affair, he took a sip from his beer. “Why? It’s a good question,” he responded. “The short answer is that I’m up for re-election. The political process is such that this is the way judges get elected. What are you supposed to do?”
At the front of the room, framed by a giant, glittering red banner proclaiming “Welcome Brooklyn Democrats 2003,” stood the night’s master of ceremonies, district leader and party insider Stevie Cohn. He led the celebrants in the Pledge of Allegiance and “The Star-Spangled Banner,” and then introduced Norman. A Court Street lawyer, Cohn has been involved in making judges in Brooklyn for more than 25 years, often handling their campaigns as well. He has also been one of the greatest recipients of lucrative fiduciary appointments from the judges he helps to pick. He took in more than $500,000 in fees from such appointments in the late 1990s, said the New York Post in a 1997 exposé. An embarrassed Cohn said then that he would stop accepting them. But when the Voice checked again in 2001, when Cohn was a candidate for City Council, it found he had never stopped. A spokesman said there had been some confusion; Cohn had only meant to cease taking appointments from Surrogate’s Court.
Gerald Garson gracefully absented himself from the party at the Marriott, as did his wife, Robin, a civil-court judge who was elected last year after being given an opponent-free slot by Norman. In one of the charges against Gerald Garson, he is alleged to have taken $1,000 from a lawyer in payment for client referrals Garson allegedly made. According to the criminal complaint, the judge allegedly asked that the money be delivered not in cash, but in the form of a check to his wife “to defray a debt she owed.”
Robin Garson’s campaign filings show that she raised more than $50,000, including $10,000 in loans from friends and family members. Most of the funds went for campaign consultants and printers favored by Brooklyn’s Democratic leaders. She also spent $1,140 at Craft Clerical Clothes on West 37th Street, where judicial robes are sold. Another $930 went for two months’ worth of parking in a garage at her and her husband’s home, on East 74th Street. As in Manhattan, not Brooklyn.