Friday, May 27, 2011

Brooklyn Primary Election 2011: First Round of Endorsements

Tuesday, September 13, 2011 is the primary election for Civil Court judge in Brooklyn. This is an election that will be extremely low turnout, yet actually the quality of our judges is something that is extremely important. If you or someone you know has to go before a judge, you damned well want that judge to be good, and yet most people ignore these races. I make it a point to get involved, learn about the candidates, and help some good candidates. Remember, a number of Brooklyn judges have been indicted and even convicted of corruption. The more people pay attention to these low turnout elections, the more likely we will have GOOD judges and avoid having judicial seats be nothing more than a political plum awarded by the corrupt Vito Lopez machine.

I want to report on two endorsement meetings that have been held by reform organizations in Brooklyn: the 52nd Assembly District County Committee and Central Brooklyn Independent Democrats.

Within Brooklyn there is one district, the 52nd Assembly district, that is best known as a "reform" district opposed to the corruption of Vito Lopez. The reformers don't always agree, but as a whole the district is one of the strongest voices for reform. This year the two district leaders from the 52nd Assembly district, Chris Owens and Jo Anne Simon, organized a 52nd Assembly District Democratic County Committee forum to help choose the best judicial candidates to support. The forum covered Civil Court Judge (2 seats open, determined by primary election on September 13) and Supreme Court (6 seats open, determined by the county Judicial Committee).

Most candidates for these seats turned in detailed questionnaires developed by District Leaders Chris Owens and Jo Anne Simon. These questionnaires were available in three notebooks circulating at the forum for anyone to read, and are available for all voters on Chris Owens' website. I urge all Brooklyn voters to read the questionnaires for Civil Court judge before voting in September. And anyone who wants to keep an eye on the Vito Lopez dominated Judicial Committee should read the Supreme Court questionnaires as well. The questionnaires include things like judicial philosophy, background, key cases judged, cases overturned or upheld by appellate courts, etc. Good info!

Candidates also gave presentations and faced questions by county committee members as well as other attendees. Joy and I were there and everyone was very carefully considering who to endorse. Most candidates came off well in their presentations, though styles varied quite a bit. I think most people felt the candidate who came off least well particularly under questioning was Shawndya Simpson. She won major points for questions on LGBT issues, but lost points on just about everything else. She also is well known as being a Vito Lopez picked candidate which also lost her points.

My impression was that ALL of the candidates were at least adequately qualified. None came off terribly in either their questionnaire or their presentations. Some did come off much better than others, though.

Here are the suggested endorsements of the 52nd Assembly District Democratic County Committee members for consideration by their District Leaders (fine print and caveat to follow in a statement by District Leader Chris Owens).

Suggested Endorsements for CIVIL COURT JUDGE (2 seats)
Cheryl Gonzalez, Peter Sweeney (incumbent)

I should note that Cheryl Gonzalez came off particularly well and most people were quite impressed with her. I think the care she takes preparing for cases was a particularly good point in her favor. Her questionnaire indicated past "qualified" ratings by several screening committees in past years. Her main experience is in housing court and as an arbitrator in small claims court. She is a member of the Women in Prison committee of the National Assn. of Women Judges.

Again, note that civil court judge will ultimately be determined by YOU the voter, so please take note of these recommendations and again, please read the questionnaires on Chris Owen's website to better inform your decision.

Suggested Endorsements for SUPREME COURT JUDGE (6 seats)
Rachel Amy Adams, Betsy Barros (incumbent), David Friedman (incumbent), Bernard Graham, Lawrence Knipel (incumbent), Betty Williams

I should note that Betty Williams came off particularly well. David Friedman came off exceptionally scholarly. Interestingly Peter Sweeney is running for both seats (not uncommon) and the County Committee members endorsed him for Civil Court (where he is an incumbent) but not for Supreme Court, even though he is acting Supreme right now. I am not clear on why except some people seemed wary of his running for two seats (note: at least one other candidate was doing the same and it is not unusual).

Again let me note that Supreme Court judges are not elected so this information is for the benefit of Judicial Committee members and for those keeping an eye on the the courts.

Here is Chris Owens' statement on the endorsement meeting:

These results are not final until all of the judicial screening panel ratings are completed and JoAnne and I have reviewed those results. Each of the top votegetters must receive a rating of Satisfactory or better from two critical panels in order to formally receive the "recommendation" of the County Committee.

We were happy with the level of participation (72 ballots cast of just over 400 County Committee members) since it was a representative sample, though there should have been even more County Committee members represented. Our outreach was limited and we will do better next time.

Most candidates submitted questionnaires, which was gratifying and helpful. We will keep them posted for the public to review on an ongoing basis.

To the extent that the incumbent judges seeking re-election may all be recommended, we feel that the voters took their recommendations seriously and recognized quality service. And, equally important, the voters did not automatically provide support to candidates with the most seniority on the bench, nor did they ignore the enduring need for greater diversity -- particularly on the Supreme Court.

Now on to the Central Brooklyn Independent Democrats (CBID). This club is one of the strongest voices in the reform movement and takes its role as a reform club very seriously.

Fewer candidates came to CBID than to the 52nd County Committee Forum and CBID did not do a questionnaire this year. CBID only endorsed for the two Civil Court seats since Supreme is not an elected position. Some questioned the validity of making an endorsement on what mainly amounted to the candidates' presentations. Some of us had been at the 52nd County Committee Forum and so could give further details based on that event. There was also some input from lawyers familiar with some of the candidates.

CBID's endorsements:

Endorsements for CIVIL COURT JUDGE (2 seats)
Cheryl Gonzalez, Peter Sweeney (incumbent)

Same as the 52nd. In some ways this is not surprising given the overlap of participants. However, the discussion was also enlightening and I think the outcome not a forgone conclusion. Peter Sweeney claims to be unopposed and came off very well. Most input on this year's incumbents is that they are all qualified and good judges, including Sweeney. Two people I know who very much dislike Sweeney's original patron, John O'Hara, nevertheless felt Sweeney is good.

Again Cheryl Gonzalez came off good, though I felt she came off better at the 52nd Forum. Her excellent record in housing court was cited, including the fact that she was one of the few housing court judges who treated lawyers representing tenants with respect. Her main rival for the spot, Lorna McAllister, did not come off nearly as well at either forum. Impressions of Lorna McAllister ranged from very negative (links to the machine through her husband, District Leader Jesse Hamilton, being cited as her only qualification) to more forgiving. I think Lorna basically is okay, probably qualified, but far less experienced and impressive than Cheryl Gonzalez. With less of a record to judge her on, only a handful of people spoke on Lorna's behalf. I am told people start running for these judicial seats before they are ready mainly to get their names out. It may be that is what Lorna is doing. Regardless, Cheryl Gonzalez was the favorite.

Above all else I really urge voters not to ignore this one. Brooklyn needs more scrutiny of their judges and the process by which they become judges. I hope these endorsements and the questionnaires on Chris Owens' website will help people judge the judges and elect better ones.