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The most significant race in any borough this election day may be the contest for state Supreme Court being waged in Brooklyn by a judge who dared to defy the county’s Democratic Party hacks. Margarita López Torres is the longest-serving judge on Brooklyn’s civil court. She was the first Hispanic American woman to serve on that bench, where she won steady acclaim for bringing fairness and dignity to both the family and criminal branches.
Not even Republicans get elected to Supreme Court in Brooklyn without Democratic Party blessings. But López Torres—denied Democratic endorsement despite efforts on her behalf by all of the borough’s leading reformers—is running on the Working Families Party line and stands a fighting chance to win. Should she be elected, it will send a far clearer and stronger message about what’s wrong with the judicial selection process than the strained and confusing indictments brought this month against party boss Clarence Norman by District Attorney Charles Hynes. López Torres’s experience is an object lesson in how party politics corrupts, although what happened to her would never merit a grand jury charge.
López Torres, 52, would have moved up to Supreme Court long ago had she not run afoul of party leader Norman. She did this by declining to accept the party’s choices to serve as her law secretary, an otherwise routine, if little-talked-about, transaction conducted by the Democratic organization. After picking the judges, the party then recommends assistants—whose $50,000-a-year jobs include scant heavy lifting, since the writing of most legal decisions is handled by a small pool of qualified aides in the court’s legal department.
One of the party’s choices was the fresh-out-of-law-school daughter of Brooklyn assemblyman Vito Lopez. Assemblyman Lopez is no relation to the judge, but he commands major clout within the party for the strength of his Bushwick clubhouse and his access to Albany patronage. The message relayed to the judge by the assemblyman’s allies was that if she hired his daughter, she would have a good shot at a prized Supreme Court candidacy. This is the way things work on Brooklyn’s bench.
López Torres, however, declined. Another judge was not as choosy and, soon after hiring the daughter, he won the party’s nod for the higher bench and was swiftly elected.
Lopez and Norman have both denied that this episode occurred, insisting that the selection of Lopez’s daughter was strictly on the merits and that the elevation of the judge who did hire her was a mere coincidence. But another borough Democratic official, Ralph Perfetto, let the cat out of the bag in a letter mailed last month to all of his fellow district leaders.
“Last year I voted for Judge Torres, but this year I checked with two judges who were not candidates this year and four attorneys,” wrote Perfetto. “They all labeled her an ‘ingrate.’ They told me that she courted Vito Lopez to support her for Civil Court, but then decided she didn’t need him anymore and denied his daughter a job.”
For having the temerity to do this, López Torres became a banned person in the party’s highest circles. Her repeated requests to be interviewed for a Supreme Court slot were rebuffed by Norman’s secretive judicial-selection panel, which said it accepted referrals only from the county leader himself. Then, up for re-election to her Civil Court post last year, she was denied official Democratic endorsement—the first time in anyone’s memory that this had been done. López Torres ran anyway, winning re-election on her own and harvesting more votes than any other candidate.
Amid the headlines of this year’s judicial bribery scandal and Hynes’s much ballyhooed state grand-jury probe, Norman’s organization ceded to some demands from reformers to open up its judicial selection process. It allowed the names of its hitherto secret panel for reviewing candidates to be made public. It also for the first time released the names of those candidates approved. Grudgingly, Norman’s panel interviewed López Torres this summer, finding her qualified. But when the party’s executive committee met last month to make its selections, the judge won only a handful of votes from rebels.
A few die-hards tried to place her name in nomination before the party’s judicial convention, but this too was a doomed effort, producing only a small shoving match between Perfetto and reformer Alan Fleischman, a photo of which ran on the front page of The New York Times as emblematic of high-running tensions in a party under siege.
Despite her outcast status, however, López Torres will still be on next week’s ballot. She will be there atop the slate of seven Supreme Court candidates running on Row E, the column allotted to the Working Families Party, the labor-backed activist organization that has cast itself as the progressive conscience of the Democratic Party.
The Democratic Party’s official picks for the upper bench are barely visible in these last days before the election. They are presumably doing what Supreme Court candidates always do at this stage of the election process: relying on the party apparatus to turn out voters who will inevitably pull the Democratic lever, as they’ve done in every judicial contest for decades. But López Torres is doing what she did last year, campaigning on her own at subway stops and senior centers and pressing her literature into the hands of passersby. Last Wednesday morning she was in downtown Brooklyn, at the Court Street IRT station, offering her palm card to commuters and calling out in a soft voice that “It makes a difference who our judges are.”
With her was Councilmember David Yassky, who represents Brooklyn Heights and Williamsburg and is one of the few elected Democratic officials to endorse her.
“Margarita is a top-quality judge who I would love to see on the bench,” Yassky said as he introduced a constituent to López Torres. “Beyond that,” he added, “what is at stake here is how we select judges—the good way or the rotten way. Her election would make a powerful statement.”
Yassky said the Democrats should adopt the Working Families method of having an independent panel select its judicial candidates. “I think what they did was show us how it should be done,” he said.
Campaigning just a couple of blocks from the courts where she presides, López Torres encountered a steady stream of lawyers. One of them, Eric Poulos, a criminal defense attorney, said he had long been a supporter.
“I met her when I tried a case before her,” he said. “I was surprised how civilized and reasonable she was. So many judges run their courtrooms like a jail. She is one of a kind. She doesn’t rubber-stamp the authorities, whether they are the city’s corporation counsel or the district attorney. She’s one of the most independent judges, which is why the machine wanted to get rid of her.”
Most observers see López Torres’s election as a long shot. The straight-Democratic-ticket voting habits of those who bother to cast ballots in Brooklyn’s judicial races are too entrenched to be overcome, they believe. Should she win, however, “it would be pretty amazing,” said Assemblyman Jim Brennan, another longtime supporter. “It would mean that it broke through to the general public that a change is needed. It would be a wake-up call to the [Democratic] party’s executive committee that they need a significant change in how they’re operating.”