Upcoming Judicial Convention to Decide Supreme Court Nominees
Just a few days after next week’s Primary election, a Judicial Convention will take place to determine which candidates will run for Supreme Court seats in November. Hosted by the Brooklyn Democratic County, the convention will decide which candidates will run for 6 open Supreme Court seats. Three incumbents are seeking re-election. Elected judicial delegates will perform their only function: voting for November’s nominees in an essentially ceremonial process. Complicating matters, the 55th AD is the only district in which there are four sets of delegates running. All other judicial delegates have no challengers.
Since his election to District Leader in the 52nd AD last year, Chris Owens has been attempting to reform the process by which Supreme Court nominees are selected, a process that was contested by Judge Margarita Lopez Torres and affirmed by the United States Supreme Court. This past May, Owens and the 52nd AD female District Leader JoAnne Simon opened to the public a Historic Reform Democratic Caucus. A diverse group of contenders submitted detailed questionnaires, made brief presentations and took challenging questions from the audience.
Reform 50th AD District Leader Lincoln Restler said at the event, “We will change things by shining a light on the process. The 52nd AD process should be replicated in other districts. With collective wisdom, we can make better choices.” 52nd AD District Leader JoAnne Simon encouraged “people to learn how judges get to the bench and participate.”
Owens described the landscape in which Supreme Court candidates are nominated. “Supreme Court candidates do not have to spend money campaigning in the way that Civil Court candidates do. They may have to spend money out of their pocket on a couple of things here and there; they spend money for example making copies of questionnaires they submit to a screening panel, but that doesn’t technically count as a campaign expenditure. Generally they spend less than $1000. You don’t have to have a campaign committee unless you spend or raise $1000,” said Owens. “So, it’s because the process is dominated by the county leader that Supreme Court candidates do not have to spend the same amount of money that civil court candidates have to.”
Margarita Lopez Torres challenged the County committee process all the way up to the United States Supreme Court which “basically decided however party leaders decide is okay with them. This doesn’t just apply to Brooklyn,” Owens said.
Owens believes the transparency and accountability are what drives his reform movement. He believes in “giving the candidates the opportunity to be seen and heard by more than just the district leaders and people behind the scenes and the county leader. That’s hard to do,” Owens said. “But, a number of different organizations hold meetings and forums where people will come before them. The difference is those groups don’t generally advertise their meetings to the public. Ours was probably the most thorough and the most formal. Candidates were required to complete a questionnaire and appear. We were trying to advertise our meeting to the general public, although we weren’t as successful this year as hopefully we will be next year. We had to start somewhere. It was a first step.”
“We anticipate holding judicial candidate forums every year there are judicial elections going forward. Every year there usually is at least one judicial selection taking place. I have to figure out how to do it more efficiently and less expensively,” Owens said. “But in my AD, or wherever I am, I want to do this every year.”
Regarding accountability, Owens asked, “Who is actually going to make that decision as to who is going to go up to the Supreme Court? There we have a huge mountain to climb, because once the county leader decides he or she wants this person to move up they basically tell every district leader to have their judicial delegates support what the county leader wants. That’s what usually ends up happening at the judicial convention which takes place a couple days after the primary. Essentially they bring all the judicial delegates together. He presents a slate saying these are the people who were nominated and those judicial delegates vote very quickly. End of discussion.”
Owens said, “It is a very tough mountain to climb because it involves not just candidates who are willing to go up against the County Leader but it involves convincing other District Leaders, many of whom are extremely either afraid of the county leader or don’t want to rock the boat. It means convincing them to tell their judicial delegates to be independent, to use their own minds and to ask their own questions, and vote their own conscience. Or if not voting their own conscience, to vote for an agenda that is not necessarily the County Leader’s agenda.”
Owens explained this year’s issue. “There are this year six Supreme Court seats that are technically up for grabs. Of those six, three are held by incumbents seeking to go back. So lots of people say ‘Oh, there are only three seats.’ No, there are six seats. It just happens to be that there are three incumbents. If they have good records there’s no reason why they shouldn’t go back.”
But Owens is advocating for more diversity on the Supreme Court bench. “The three incumbents all happen to be white. Of the three seats left, the county leader has told his minions that there will be one Black, and that we should pick The Black that we want to put up on the Supreme Court. My attitude and that of one or two of my colleagues is ‘Why should there be one black? Why aren’t there at least two blacks? Why not three?’ If you have three whites going back up, how are you going to change the numbers and the Supreme Court pool if you don’t do something extra to change the numbers of people of color Black and Latino?”, Owens asked. “The percentage of black and Latino civil court judges is high and more representative of the population. The percentage of black and Latino Supreme Court judges who are from Brooklyn/ Staten Island judicial district is extremely low. That doesn’t make sense considering Brooklyn and Staten Island have huge Black and huge Latino populations.”
“Our argument is essentially an affirmative action argument which is you are not going to change the imbalance unless at some point you say ‘Okay, this year we want to see these two blacks go up,’ or give people the freedom to support more blacks or more Latinos. The county leader doesn’t work that way; he makes deals where this group is going to get this and that group is going to get that,” said Owens.
Pointing to the record of former Brooklyn Democratic County Leader Clarence Norman, Owens said, “At least Clarence was successful in increasing the numbers, but the numbers were so low if you started at none and got one you had a 100% increase. The numbers were so low that Clarence insisted that that had to change. He definitely increased the numbers.”
“We shouldn’t have to coalesce around one Black candidate acting as if none of the other [Black] candidates are as qualified or more qualified than the white candidates,” said Owens.
This becomes important to Owens. “For example, Betty Williams has been on the civil court for quite a while. She wants to become Supreme Court before she retires. She has lots of experience; she has a good track record,” said Owens. “There is no reason why her track record should not be considered by everybody as an option to go up, rather than telling the district leaders we should pick one black and that one should go up. Betty Williams has lots of experience both community and legal. She has been a judge and has been honored for her work.”
By contrast, Owens said, “Then you have Carl Landicino who is a lawyer and Vito’s operations guy. He does Vito’s legal work and has done it for the past couple of years. According to inside rumors, he is Vito’s choice to get a Supreme Court slot. Landicino does not live in Brooklyn; he lives in Westchester. Vito’s agenda is certain groups get taken care of and his boy Carl Landicino gets taken care of.”
“The Thomas Jefferson Democratic club is a powerful club. If there is a judge supported by the Thomas Jefferson Democratic club, Vito wants to keep them happy.” Vito favors some Democratic clubs over others? “Absolutely. He hates IND. He hates CBID; we are reformers, we cause him trouble. He is respectful of other clubs in the judicial district. Earl Williams’ club in ENY can have a little more cache. The club that Martin and Eric Dilan run in Bushwick/Bed Stuy is going to get more play because they are tight with him. All things are not equal among Democrats,” Owens said.
“In all fairness to Vito,” Owens said, “he’s been County Leader since 2005, just shy of six years, essentially not that long period of time when it comes to influencing the quality of judges overall, but it is a long period of time when you’re looking at potential to correct an imbalance. He has the power every single year to say to the Orthodox community or the Italian community ‘You know what? We know you have a lot of candidates but the percentage of Supreme Court justices who are black and Latino is low. That makes no sense considering the population. This year I’ve got more than three qualified candidates who are black and Latino. I am going to make sure all of them move up. I’ll deal with you guys next year.’”
Owens opined, “That’s a gutsy move. It pisses people off. It hurts him when he’s trying to sell tickets to the County dinner. But the bottom line is he plays the game to maximize his power, as to all county leaders, but in Brooklyn’s case, just a little more devoid of substance.”
Walter Mosley, 57th AD District Leader said he “would be okay with the process of [among] the three remaining seats that at least one be African-American and other diversity if possible, as long as we are not basing our judgments solely upon one’s race. We are looking at the merits and qualifications of a judge. I am all for diversity whether it relates to religion, sex, or race, as long as it is reflective of the borough we live in.”
Asked if voters can look for a Democratic slate coming out all of the judicial convention going into November, Mosley said, “I look forward to it and I anticipate it. Nothing is guaranteed. We have to keep on lobbying and making sure we press the issue in a diplomatic format.”
Olanike Alabi, 57th AD District Leader, said, “Although the selection process for Supreme Court Judges is largely ceremonial, members of the public can reach out to their local district leaders and/or delegates to the convention and make their preferences known prior to the judicial convention. The list of delegates by Assembly District is finalized immediately after the Democratic Primary because some are contested races. The Candidate Records Unit of the New York City Board of Elections has a list of all elected delegates along with their contact information.”
Originally published in Our Time Press, September 8, 2011.
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