Wednesday, June 7, 2017

How the Politically Connected Control the New York Court System

Judge Joan Kenney

How the politically connected control the New York court system



Geoffrey Wright
Manhattan lawyers knew Judge Joan Kenney was “confrontational,” “abusive” and “outright nasty” — and said so on a judge-ranking Web site, The Robing Room.
One fed-up attorney went further, complaining to the state Commission on Judicial Conduct that she was “rude” and failed to display “judicial temperament” during a settlement conference.
The city Bar Association publicly branded her with a damning “Not Approved” rating in 2010, saying she failed “to affirmatively demonstrate the requisite qualifications” to sit in judgment of others.
And last year, she was “universally not respected” by a Democratic screening committee that blocked her bid to run for a seat on the state Supreme Court, a panel member told The Post.
But none of the red flags affected her seat on the bench — or even her 2009 promotion to acting Supreme Court justice, for which she scored her first annual renewal just two months after being deemed unfit by the Bar Association.
That all ended on May 9, when Kenney showed up to court an hour late and disheveled, then erupted in fury at reporters taking notes in the public gallery.
“You can’t write everything I say. I think out loud,” she ordered. “In this courtroom, I’m the boss.”
She was demoted to handling lesser matters in Manhattan Civil Court — to which she was elected in 2000 and 2010 — and her conduct cost her the $13,600-a-year salary differential between the two jobs.
It also shone a light on the political machinations that turn lawyers into judges in the Big Apple, where the road to the bench has long been shadowed by suspicions that corrupt pols were putting unqualified hacks on the bench.
“There’s bad apples in any industry, and everybody knows who those judges are. There are several names you can say and the whole room will groan,” said high-profile Manhattan lawyer Elizabeth Eilender, who represented Atlanta Hawks hoopster Thabo Sefolosha in a false-arrest suit against the NYPD. “Even when outrageous behavior is brought to the state’s Commission on Judicial Conduct, nothing gets done. It’s not until the press shines a bright spotlight on this type of conduct that anything is done.”
New York City has more than 400 judges who are selected locally, according to the state Office of Court Administration.
Voters choose the judges for the Supreme, Surrogate’s and Civil courts, while the mayor appoints judges to the Family and Criminal courts and also fills interim vacancies in Civil Court.
For the elected judgeships, candidates must win nomination through a primary election, except for Supreme Court, where candidates are chosen through a judicial nominating convention.
But given the Democratic Party’s overwhelming dominance in every borough except Staten Island, “the ‘election’ of a judge is often determined de facto at the nomination stage,” according to a 2014 guide by the city Bar Association. “Political considerations, including a history of political party activity, contributions to political party organizations and acquaintance with political party officials, may influence the selection process to varying degrees,” the report notes.
That influence has been an issue since the at least the 1800s, when a crisis of confidence in the legal system led voters to amend the state Constitution in 1869 and ratify the election of judges, who at the time were all appointed to the bench.
The change helped sweep from power William “Boss” Tweed’s nakedly corrupt Tammany Hall political machine, with the bloody “Orange Riot” leading to its virtual destruction in the election of 1871.
But any hope that politics no longer corrupted the selection of city judges was irreparably dashed by the mid-2000s scandal that brought down Brooklyn Democratic boss and longtime Assemblyman Clarence Norman for extorting $10,000 from a judicial candidate.
During a 2007 trial — one of three at which Norman was convicted of crooked schemes — former Brooklyn Civil Court Judge Karen Yellen told jurors how the “King of Brooklyn” put the screws to her campaign manager, Scott Levenson, while negotiating his party’s endorsement of her re-election bid.
The deal included a $1,000 donation to the campaign of a Norman political ally, then-Assemblywoman Adele Cohen, and $9,000 to crony William Boone for a get-out-the-vote operation.
“Ultimately, the words he used were, ‘We will dump her,’ ” Yellen testified about the July 2002 shakedown inside Brooklyn’s Democratic Party headquarters on Court Street.
“He was very angry. It was very, very unpleasant. He rose up out of his seat, leaned across the desk and was in Scott’s face.
“I know I was shocked because the way it was done was not the way one expects it to happen — unprofessional and astonishing,” she added.
Yellen broke down in tears while describing the ultimate results of the 2002 Democratic primary. “I lost,” she said. “And I was out of a job.”
But she admitted forking over $9,000 a day after the defeat — in the vain hope it would help buy her another seat on the bench.
“I thought that possibly I could go up to the Supreme Court,” she said. “That I could get the nomination from the party if I paid the monies that were demanded of me, that I could save my career.”
Norman wound up serving nearly four years in the slammer for shaking down Yellen, soliciting illegal contributions from a lobbyist and stealing $5,000 in campaign funds, before being paroled in 2011. He and Yellen both declined to comment.
Kenney’s since-rescinded promotion to acting Supreme Court justice illustrates another way politics can affect the makeup of the city’s judiciary, sources said. While the number of Supreme Court seats in each judicial district is fixed by the state Constitution, the demands of an ever-increasing caseload has led court administrators to elevate certain lower-court judges to fill the gap.
Currently, 143 — or nearly half — of the city’s 294 Supreme Court justices are there by virtue of appointment by the chief administrative judge, in consultation with other court officials.
“The most important factor in making these appointments is ability to handle Supreme Court cases, but seniority is also a factor,” Chief Administrative Judge Lawrence Marks said.
Getting appointed an acting Supreme Court justice is considered “a plum,” said one court insider, who added, “It’s a much more prestigious position and a lot less work.”
“Some people get acting Supreme because they’re producers. Others get it because of support from the county [political] leaders,” the source said. “There’s political grease with 50 to 60 percent of them . . . Unless you do something bad, they don’t take it away from you.”
And while demotions are rare, Kenney’s was actually preceded earlier this year by the even-harsher punishment imposed on Manhattan Civil Court Judge Geoffrey Wright, who was bounced from Manhattan Supreme Court to Queens Family Court. Sources said it was for repeatedly clashing with Manhattan prosecutors, including cursing one out in open court.
The humiliating move followed an official complaint from Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr., sources said at the time.
Neither Kenney nor Wright responded to a request for comment.
Wright — son of the late judge known as “Cut ‘Em Loose Bruce” Wright — is the brother of former Harlem Assemblyman Keith Wright, chairman of the Manhattan Democratic Party.
Last year, The Post revealed that Keith Wright had alienated some party members by pushing for an endorsement of his brother’s law clerk, Phaedra Perry, to run for a Civil Court judgeship.
Perry won the backing of the party’s Executive Committee at a closed-door meeting last month, a source said. Geoffrey Wright is also up for re-election this year, and — despite his recent humbling — is all but guaranteed re-election due to his brother’s influence, said longtime judicial-convention delegate Alan Flacks.
“No one’s allowed to run against him. Keith Wright wants his brother re-elected. There is a panel of one up there, and it’s called the Keith Wright selection panel,” Flacks said.
“What black lawyer in Harlem will run against the county leader’s brother? No one.”
For decades, reformers have been calling for the elimination of judicial elections and creation of an independent “merit-based” selection system involving screening panels composed of lawyers and nonlawyers who don’t hold any other public offices.
“A process which relies on political connections may not sufficiently emphasize the importance of character and integrity, and the extensive political ties of those judges chosen by such a process may additionally make them more susceptible to requests for favors from the political leaders who helped elect them,” according to a 2003 report by a task force of the city Bar Association.
The report cited a 1992 study by the Fund for Modern Courts that examined judicial-misconduct cases dating back 15 years and found that seven of 181 elected city judges were convicted of a crime, removed from office or otherwise publicly sanctioned, compared with just one of 188 appointed judges.
The Bar Association also slammed the naming of acting Supreme Court justices, saying they’re “effectively chosen by an official with limited political visibility, through a process which makes no use of an insulating, independent selection committee.”
It called for ending those appointments in favor of establishing “an adequate number of regular Supreme Court judges,” with court officials agreeing until then not to elevate any judge who “has been found not qualified by this association or any comparable group.”
Retired Appellate Division Justice David Saxe, now a partner at the Morrison Cohen law firm, offered a bleak assessment.
“Our state court system in New York is absolutely insane,” he told The Post. “It has enabled political people to control the courts, and they don’t want to give it up — so it’s very hard to get legitimate change that would be beneficial to the public.

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