This blog has been closely following the Democratic primary elections for county judge in Brooklyn, New York, where voters were forced to choose between candidates approved by the Democratic party machine and a group of “insurgents” running on an independent slate. The election took place earlier this month, and the results are … flabbergasting.
Typically, critiques of money and judicial politics focus on the concern that donors to judicial campaigns will expect favors from a judge after election, compromising the judge’s impartiality. In a bizarre twist, the Buffalo News reports on a judicial candidate who is spending her donors’ contributions on other, unrelated campaigns:
When local attorneys, business people and others donated a record amount of money to Acea M. Mosey’s campaign fund, they knew they were giving money to an experienced lawyer and Democratic Party stalwart running for Erie County Surrogate Court judge.
What they may not have known is that some of their donations – at least $33,393 – would go to political parties, political organizations and seekers of a wide variety of other political offices, including candidates for Congress, Erie County sheriff, the mayor of Buffalo and chairman of the Erie County Democratic Committee.
Mosey’s campaign organization, Mosey for Surrogate committee, this year has given money – either in donations or expenditures – to a total of 167 political candidates, parties and organizations, according to a Buffalo News analysis of state Elections Board records.
Mosey, by the way, has raised $900,000 for her judicial election campaign even though she is running unopposed.
Here is a remarkable article on the Opiate Crisis Intervention Court in New York, presided over by Judge Craig Hannah. The court hears a variety of cases involving parties with opiate addiction, with an emphasis on getting them treatment. It’s a great example of state courts structuring themselves in creative ways to respond to social needs.
In June, a reporter in the Syracuse, New York area was briefly handcuffed by courthouse security after he took pictures of individuals involved in a hallway altercation. The court had generally prohibited photographing and video recording activities in court hallways, but made an exception for the media.
The reporter was freed after a few minutes and not charged, but court administrators are now requiring all security officers in the six-county area to undergo training on working with journalists as well as proper arrest procedure. This appears to have been an isolated incident, but it is good to see the court system acknowledging the problem and working proactively with its officers to maintain the proper balance between security and transparency.
I have previously discussed the candidacies of five Brooklyn residents who are running for judge, but refuse to go through the selection system dominated by Democratic Party bosses. In the latest twist in the story, a spokesman for the five candidates has accused local party boss Frank Seddio of hosting a “illegal” fundraiser for the party’s preferred candidates on August 23.
Surely some of this is an effort to stay in the news cycle, but the accusations of spokesman Gary Tilzer are still damning:
Seddio, an attorney, sent the red, white and blue invite to more than 185 people — including sitting judges, judicial candidates, attorneys, developers, politicians, lobbyists and members of the Judicial Screening Committee. The invite vaguely touts fund-raising “to support our contested countywide candidates.”
It doesn’t specify the candidates who will benefit or the election that’s involved.
Guests were instructed to write their $500 to $5,000 checks out to the Kings County Democratic County Committee, an account that’s controlled by the Brooklyn Democratic Party, and mail them to Seddio’s home address, according to the letter.
Tilzer’s three-page letter to the committees said Seddio’s fund-raising efforts violate the Rules Governing Judicial Conduct and are unethical on seven points, including not disclosing who the event benefits, inviting sitting judges to contribute and, since the beneficiaries aren’t named, having judicial candidates raising money with potential nonjudicial candidates.
As I have noted before, those who are truly concerned about the influence of money in politics might want to start by shining a light on local hornet’s nests like these.
In June, I flagged an interesting story of five judicial candidates in Brooklyn who are aggressively running against the Democratic Party machine. These candidates, led by John O’Hara (a lawyer with a colorful and checkered past), assert that the borough’s independent screening panel is really just an arm of the local Democratic Party, and subject to the wishes of party bosses. All but one of the insurgent candidates has refused to go before the panel .
With the primary about a month away, the New York Law Journal weighs in with an article that captures the essence of the insurgency, as well as the establishment position. The crux of their claims: the party asserts that the 24-member screening panel simply determines candidates’ fitness for the bench, and expects no quid pro quo for the candidates it deems qualified. The O’Hara group alleges that the panel is essentially a mechanism for attorney members to receive future favors from the candidates they endorse.
I generally favor screening panels or nominating commissions as part of a comprehensive judicial selection process. But this challenge makes clear that if the panel itself is not seen as legitimate, neither will the judicial candidates it endorses. And New York has a long and unfortunate history of party boss control over the selection of local judges. We’ll see how it plays out at the September 12 primary.