How New York Judges Spend Their Way Toward Seats on the Bench

Most of the state Supreme Court candidates who won in November had donated to the parties and party bosses that nominated them, a New York Focus investigation found.

Sam Mellins   ·   December 10, 2020
New York State Supreme Court Justice Lizette Colon has donated over $21,000 to the Brooklyn Democratic Party and its leaders. | Caroline Ourso

Published in partnership with THE CITY.

Recently elected New York State Supreme Court Justice Lizette Colon is a generous donor to the Brooklyn Democratic Party — thanks to a loophole in strict state ethics rules that largely ban political contributions from judges and judicial candidates.

In nearly a hundred separate contributions since 2002, Colon has given over $21,000 to the Kings County Democratic Committee, campaign funds of district leaders who make key party decisions and other power players in Brooklyn Democratic politics. 

Recipients of her donations over the years include county party chairs Rodneyse Bichotte and Frank Seddio, and local power brokers like Borough President Eric Adams and the late City Councilmember Lewis Fidler.

In 2019, after nearly two decades of giving, Colon secured a nomination from the county committee to fill out the last year of a term for a vacated Brooklyn Supreme Court seat. This November — after being renominated by party leaders — the one-time court interpreter was elected by voters to a full 14-year term. 

She’s not alone. Of the 24 judges elected to Supreme Court in New York City last month, 20 have donated to the county party organizations that nominated them or to the politicians who lead those organizations.

And Colon is not the only one to have given often.

Brooklyn Supreme Court Judge Theresa Ciccotto has donated to the Kings County Democratic Party and its leaders over 130 times since 2005, totaling in excess of $15,000.

Ciccotto first joined the Supreme Court bench in 2017 and won election to a full term in November despite being deemed “Not Approved” by the New York City Bar Association. 

The Bar Association says an “Approved” rating demonstrates “qualifications necessary for the performance of the duties for which they are being considered.”

Colon and Ciccotto are exceptional in the volume of their contributions. But making political donations is common among Supreme Court nominees, most of whom have given amounts totalling in the low thousands. 

The donations reflect a political climate in which party leaders, far more than voters, determine who obtains Supreme Court seats, a nominally elected position. 

“In general, the State Supreme Court nominations are controlled by the party leadership,” said Jim Brennan, a former New York State Assembly member from Brooklyn familiar with the process.

In Brooklyn, all six Supreme Court judges elected last month are donors to the Kings County Democratic Party and campaign accounts of its executive committee members. 

Brennan said that Colon, with her many donations, was “an example of someone who is really going at it” in attempting to secure a Supreme Court seat.

Already Decided

By the time voters select Supreme Court judges in November, the real decisions have usually already been made the previous summer, when county Democratic Party organizations select the nominees. 

In the four heavily Democratic boroughs of New York City — all but Staten Island — nomination to the Democratic ticket essentially ensures a candidate a Supreme Court seat.

In Manhattan, the four judges elected last month have donated to the New York County Democratic Committee and the campaign accounts of its leaders. All four have also made contributions to local Democratic party clubs influential in determining judicial nominations, including the Downtown Independent Democrats and the Chelsea Reform Democratic Club.

Three of the four Manhattan judges made their first contribution after 2016. All four have given amounts totalling thousands of dollars.

The donations are generally made in increments of $250 and typically come in the form of tickets to party fundraisers, where aspiring judges can mingle with party leadership.

“There’s kind of a social expectation that you’re going to do that,” Brennan said of the fundraiser tickets. “The contributions are taken note of.”

Brennan said that the “determining factors” in the nomination process are seniority and racial balance, rather than contributions.

But he conceded that money can help candidates stand out in a crowded field. “It might be a factor if 10 Supreme Court candidates have to be whittled down to the five spots that are available,” Brennan said. “At the end of the day, it all adds up.”

Strict Ethics Rules

Since 2003, the New York Advisory Committee on Judicial Ethics has issued a rules handbook that outlines strict limits on political activities and contributions by judicial candidates. 

Still, the rules, composed largely by judges who rose up through the New York court system, provide ample leeway for judicial candidates to use donations to gain favor with party leaders. So do court rules set by the state’s chief administrative judge. 

The Judicial Ethics Campaign Handbook says judicial candidates are prohibited from making political contributions — with one exception. Candidates are permitted to purchase up to two tickets to political fundraising dinners, at a price no greater than $250 each.

The two-ticket exception is permitted since it is seen as the candidate “participat[ing] in his or her own campaign,” according to the rules of the New York Courts

But while these limits apply to candidates, many of the contributions from this year’s judges were made before they declared their candidacies — when rules limiting judicial candidate contributions did not apply to them. 

Members of the Advisory Committee on Judicial Ethics — some of whom made donations to the party organizations that nominated them — did not respond to multiple requests for comment. Nor did a spokesperson for the Office of Court Administration, which sets court rules.

‘A Rubber Stamping’ 

With 14-year terms and a comfortable six-figure salary, seats on the Supreme Court are highly coveted. In a remaining piece of old machine-style politics, party leaders in each borough award nominations to these seats as they see fit.

On paper, the candidates who appear on New Yorkers’ ballots in November are selected by judicial delegates, who in turn are elected by voters in party primaries. 

In practice, judicial delegates’ role is to rubber stamp decisions made by party leadership. Each year that there is a Supreme Court vacancy, the officers of the county parties — usually elected officials — present a list of nominees to judicial conventions.

In theory, delegates can propose additional nominees at conventions, beyond the party leadership’s recommendations. But this hardly ever occurs, according to multiple former candidates, legal experts and New York politicos familiar with the process. As of 2008, 96% of judicial nominations were uncontested at conventions.

Delegates arriving at the Queens judicial convention in August were greeted with a list of nine nominees to fill nine vacancies. Each nominee was overwhelmingly approved without debate, according to convention delegate Julia Forman.

“That’s not a nomination, that’s a rubber stamping,” said Forman, a community organizer and 2021 City Council Candidate. “I was being completely blocked from doing the job that I was elected to do, of being the person who considers and evaluates the nominees.”

Former Brooklyn Democratic District Leader Nick Rizzo called the court nominations “a backroom, secretive, totally undemocratic process that determines who will be the day to day judges for the most serious matters that face New Yorkers. Almost no New Yorkers actually get a say in this process.”

In the four boroughs where the vast majority of voters are registered Democrats — Queens, Manhattan, The Bronx and Brooklyn — the nominees invariably win, some running on multiple party lines. Every judge elected or reelected this year in New York City ran on the Democratic line.

How Judges Are Really Chosen

Prior to the current rule limiting individual contributions to two $250 tickets, candidates could purchase up to entire tables at political fundraisers. In February 2006, then-Chief Judge of New York Judith Kaye established the ticket limit as part of the administrative rules for New York judges.

But the $250 limit does not prevent aspiring judges from donating repeatedly. Queens Supreme Court Judge Lance Evans first gave $250 to the Queens Democratic Party in 2005, and made a $250 contribution at least once every year through 2017. From 2018 to 2020, Evans donated 11 times, adding up to a total price tag of $3,100. 

From 2006 through 2020, Evans made 48 donations to the Queens County Democratic Organization, the fundraising arm of the county party, adding up to $14,550. Evans was nominated to a seat on the Queens Supreme Court in summer 2020, and was elected in November.

Eight of the nine candidates party leadership recommended at August’s Queens convention — all of whom were approved by the convention and elected by voters last month — have made multiple donations of hundreds of dollars to the Queens Democratic Party in the past 15 years. 

The one judge who was not a party donor, Mojgan Lancman, is married to Rory Lancman, Queens City Council member and district leader.

Rep. Gregory Meeks, chair of the Queens Democratic Party, told New York Focus that donations and attendance at fundraising events plays no role in determining judicial nominations. 

“I have no clue whether the judges that we appointed have ever attended a party dinner or not. That’s not something that was asked or even considered. It’s not a requirement, I know that,” Meeks said.

Ethan Felder, a labor lawyer and Queens Democratic leader for Forest Hills’ District 28, questioned Meeks’ statement. 

“I’m sure the party is aware of who has donated to it,” Felder said, when told by New York Focus about Meeks’ comments. 

“In that sense, I would disbelieve what Chairman Meeks told you,” he added.

No Issue for Some

Some observers do not believe judicial candidates buying tickets to fundraisers poses a problem. 

“I don’t regard that as corrupt, I regard that as the way business is done in New York,” said Gerald Benjamin, a professor emeritus at SUNY New Paltz, scholar of New York state politics, and former Republican chairman of the Ulster County legislature.

Donations from successful judicial candidates are often concentrated in the years preceding their appointments. Queens Supreme Court Justice Kevin Kerrigan has made seven donations to the Queens County Democratic Organization, most in increments of $250. Six of the seven were made between August 2005 and February 2007, preceding his nomination in the summer of 2007.

The seventh was made 13 years later, in February of this year, before his nomination for a second term in August.

None of the judges named in this article responded to requests for comment.

Queens Justices Evelyn Braun, Michelle Johnson, and Darrell Gavrin all made multiple donations concentrated in the period before their initial nominations as well. 

Brooklyn Supreme Court Justice Carolyn Wade has given to the Brooklyn Democratic Party and its leaders over 130 times since 2005. The total value of Wade’s donations exceeds $19,000.

‘I Was Certainly Well Qualified’ 

Former Brooklyn Assemblymember Dan Feldman, a professor of public management at John Jay College and former counsel to the state attorney general and comptroller, tried to get a spot on the Brooklyn Supreme Court bench about a dozen years ago.

“On paper I was certainly well qualified,” Feldman said, noting that he had drafted multiple bills that became laws during his time in the Assembly and published several law review articles.

But he didn’t put in the necessary time or money to woo the kingmakers of the Brooklyn Democratic Party, Feldman recalled, and was not nominated to the Supreme Court. Had he attended fundraising dinners and courted the support of the party leaders, he said, he might have fared better.

 “If I’d done that circuit for 15 years, I probably would have gotten a judgeship eventually,” he said.

Sam Feldman, a public defense attorney, also expressed frustration with New York’s Supreme Court judges. “There’s a lot of brilliant lawyers in New York City. You could hope that we’d have the cream of the crop of judges here. But I don’t think we do,” Feldman said. “I have never felt like the judges pay much attention to the actual legal questions,” he added.

A Way Out?

Some critics of judicial elections say that a straightforward appointment process would be more transparent. “Justifying giving Andrew Cuomo more power is hard,” Rizzo said, but “right now we have the worst of all systems. It has all the stupidity of an election, but all the cronyism and lack of transparency of an appointment.” 

Rizzo said that he favors a process in which the mayor would appoint judges, who would be confirmed by the City Council.

Mayoral appointments, Forest Hills district leader Felder suggested, “would certainly be better than what we have now in Queens.”

“We could have transparent elections or a transparent appointment process,” Felder added, “and either would be a lot better than this process we have now, where there’s really no choice but there’s the illusion of choice.”

Benjamin pointed out that appointments do not necessarily preclude corruption — as in the accusations of ethics conflicts that dogged Cuomo following contributions to his campaign account by dozens of his appointees.

Any changes to the court system would require amending the New York State Constitution. New York voters rejected a ballot measure that would have called a constitutional convention in 2017, and the state legislature has not pushed for judicial reform in recent sessions.

In the meantime, tens of thousands of cases — some represented by attorneys who have positions in the county Democratic parties — are pending before judges who have donated thousands of dollars to the party bosses who put them on the bench.

Sam Mellins is senior reporter at New York Focus, which he has been a part of since launch day. His reporting has also appeared in The San Francisco Chronicle, The Intercept, THE CITY, and The Nation. 
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