Anyone who has had an issue with any State Agency or who is not politically connected or does not have the money to buy influence in the State Courts, can clearly see the corruption that festers in the hallowed halls of injustice here.
We are nevertheless appalled by the Democratic Party, which controls the Judges in New York City, in their arrogance of immunity in demoting Judge Armando Montano for not hiring the Party Chairman's former aide after Montano was elected. He challenged the Party machine, as he should have.
We must break free of the stranglehold that politics has in this city.
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A Judge Refused to Hire a Party Boss’s Aide. A Demotion Followed.
He said the Bronx Democratic chairman punished him for bucking the patronage system.
Three months after the Bronx Democratic Party announced its support for Judge Armando Montano in the 2017 election for State Supreme Court justice, the party’s chairman had a request: He wanted the newly elected judge to hire the chairman’s former aide as a confidential assistant.
Justice Montano interviewed the person, thought it over and declined. “Damn judge, really?” the party chairman, Assemblyman Marcos Crespo, texted him after his decision. “I mentioned I had a recommendation in mind for the confidential role.”
Seven months later, after winning election, Justice Montano was abruptly reassigned in the Supreme Court, where he had presided over felonies, to a part handling domestic violence cases, a less desirable position.
He refused to accept the assignment, and the chief administrative judge, Lawrence K. Marks, stripped Justice Montano of his caseload, chambers and staff.
The former judge maintains the Office of Court Administration punished him at the behest of party leaders because he would not hire Mr. Crespo’s assistant. Court administration officials say it was a routine reassignment that had nothing to do with politics.
Judge Marks declined to be interviewed for this article.
Judgeships are one of the last bastions of machine party power, and Mr. Montano maintains his case highlights a system of patronage that has long existed in courthouses throughout the city, but is especially prevalent in the Bronx, where party leaders maintain a strong hold over the judiciary and district attorney’s office. The party leaders most recently handpicked the borough’s top prosecutor, Darcel D. Clark.
The Bronx Democratic Party has moved to clean up its act since the blatantly corrupt days of Stanley Friedman, the disgraced former party leader who was convicted of federal bribery charges in 1986. Still, it remains one of the most powerful political machines in the city; party bosses call the shots in low-interest races and expect favors — like jobs — in exchange for their support.
“Judgeships are bought,” said one political consultant, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, citing fear of retribution. “The jobs that come out of that office go to the organization — they make the choice of who gets the jobs.”
Mr. Crespo, the party’s chairman, said Democratic leaders only recommend people for positions, and no one is penalized for not hiring the party’s picks.
“We make recommendations, of course,” Mr. Crespo said. “Sometimes they get hired, sometimes they don’t. The perception we hold people accountable is not true.”
At least three people connected to Mr. Crespo and the Bronx Democratic Party have been identified as current or former court employees, including Mr. Crespo’s wife, Virna Lisy Crespo.
Ms. Crespo said she applied for the job after learning about the opening when a friend, who is now a judge, suggested she apply. She said there was “no political push” and that her husband was not involved.
Ms. Crespo was hired as a secretary in 2016 by Supreme Court Justice Ruben Franco in the Bronx and was later transferred to the Supreme Civil Court before leaving the post in February last year, according to Lucian Chalfen, spokesman for the Office of Court Administration. Mr. Crespo contends that his wife got the job on her own merits and not through a political connection.
That same judge also hired Ashley Curet, the staffer at the Bronx Democratic County Committee who Mr. Crespo later recommended that Mr. Montano hire. Ms. Curet served as a court secretary for eight months in 2017, according to Mr. Chalfen.
Then, in July last year, Administrative Judge Robert Torres in the Bronx Supreme Court’s criminal section hired Mr. Crespo’s former community liaison, Onelis Ramirez, for a position as principal secretary. Among the three women, Ms. Ramirez received the highest salary of $51,940.
That same month, Judge Torres, who was up for re-election in November and needed support from the party, played a pivotal roll in reassigning Mr. Montano. Through a spokesman, Judge Torres declined to comment on the decision.
Patronage in the New York City courts has a long history. Nearly two decades ago, Judge Margarita Lopez Torres of civil court in Brooklyn fell out of favor with the Democratic machine when she refused to make patronage hires. The party declined to back her re-election bid. She ran anyway and beat the party-backed candidates. But then party leaders blocked her efforts to be interviewed to become a Supreme Court justice.
Democratic Party leaders effectively control judgeships in New York City. Because they have a well-oiled machine for collecting signatures for nominating petitions, they can determine who gets on the ballot as delegates to “judicial conventions,” which select the party’s judicial candidates. Those candidates usually face little Republican opposition in the general election.
The convention method, which is unique to New York State, survived a challenge before the United States Supreme Court in 2008, though some justices were critical of the system. One noted: “The Constitution does not prohibit legislatures from enacting stupid laws.”
Dennis R. Hawkins, executive director of the Fund for Modern Courts, a watchdog group, called the state’s judicial election process “an undemocratic, closed system” that allows patronage to flourish.
“This whole convention thing enables this kind of thing to happen,” Mr. Hawkins said. “Do we really want that as part of the judiciary?”
One Bronx judge who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of retribution said that party leaders often make recommendations. The judge hired some and rejected others, the judge said.
They make suggestions — after all, they support you for election,” the judge said, noting there was no pressure to hire. “They have people who do election work for the party and make it possible to be elected. The incentive? Maybe there will be jobs in it for them.”
Mr. Chalfen denied that there was anything political about the decision to send Mr. Montano to the integrated domestic violence section, which deals with criminal, family and matrimonial matters.
It was a routine reassignment to fill an operational need, he said. The domestic violence section, Mr. Chalfen said in a statement, is “extremely important and assignment to such a court is hardly a demotion.”
Justice Montano was ultimately forced from the bench in July 2018. The administrative board of the courts, which consists of the presiding justices of the four appellate departments and the chief judge, decided not to extend his tenure because he had refused to accept the assignment to the domestic violence court, Mr. Chalfen said. Under state law, Justice Montano needed the board’s blessing to serve past the age of 70 under state law.
The Office of Court Administration filed a complaint against Justice Montano with the Commission on Judicial Conduct after he refused to accept the new assignment, but the review was closed following his departure from the bench.
Justice Montano had asked the commission to grant him a public hearing and had hoped to use it to expose a system he has said is overwhelmingly political and perhaps corrupt.
“It is unethical and possibly criminal to allow the Democratic Party leader to use the courts as a patronage mill,” the former judge, 70, said during an interview at his lawyer’s Midtown office. “It’s something that should be addressed. If you play ball, go along to get along, you compromise your integrity and compromise the court system.”
The former judge, the son of a longtime Bronx assemblyman, was a defense lawyer for 34 years before being elected as a civil court judge in 2013. In 2017, he was nominated at the Bronx Judicial Convention to the Supreme Court. There, he said, he helped cut down on a backlog of cases.
“No one will give him the chance to show there is political corruption,” said Paul Gentile, the former judge’s lawyer. He said his client unfairly has the reputation now as an insubordinate judge. “It’s in every court. It adds up to the fact that we don’t have an independent judiciary.”
Jan Ransom is a reporter covering New York City. Before joining The Times in 2017, she covered law enforcement and crime for The Boston Globe. She is a native New Yorker.