Judge Who Censored The New York Times on Behalf of Project Veritas Seeks New Term as a Democrat

As Westchester Democrats weigh whether to endorse the former Republican, the party chair calls his critics a “lynch mob.”

Sam Mellins   ·   April 5, 2023
Former Republican Charles Wood blocked the The New York Times from publishing Project Veritas documents just two years after he flipped parties. Now he's running for 14 more years on the bench as a Democrat. | Illustration: Maia Hibbett for New York Focus

WESTCHESTER SUPREME COURT Justice Charles Wood became the center of national attention in December 2021 — a rare feat for a local-level judge. He pulled it off by issuing a highly unusual ruling, one First Amendment experts condemned as “blatantly unconstitutional” and “an outrageous affront to the First Amendment.”

The controversial right-wing media organization Project Veritas had sued to block The New York Times from publishing a cache of Project Veritas legal memos that the newspaper had obtained. The case seemed doomed by the First Amendment’s guarantee of press freedom — but Wood ruled in Project Veritas’s favor, blocking the Times from publishing the memos and ordering the newspaper to return or destroy them.

Now Wood, who was elected in 2009 as a Republican and became a Democrat in 2019, is seeking the Democratic Party’s nomination for another 14-year term. He’s doing so with the apparent blessing of the Westchester Democratic Party, and no opposition from New York State Democratic Committee Chair Jay Jacobs.

Reached by phone, Wood told New York Focus that he flipped parties due to “being a moderate Republican before and not liking some of the things that my party was doing.”

“The loudest voices were not ones I agreed with,” he added.

Wood pointed to several Westchester Democratic politicians who had once been Republicans, including former New York Chief Judge Janet DiFiore and Yonkers Mayor Mike Spano. “Party switches in Westchester County are kind of par for the course,” he said.

How a person acts in their political life, that I think is more determinative as to whether or not they truly are in principle, and in values, Democrats.

Jay Jacobs, New York State Democratic Committee chair

The Westchester County Democratic Committee lists Wood’s fundraising events on its website, but hasn’t yet issued an official endorsement. Some in Westchester Democratic politics have objected to his candidacy.

“As a former journalist, what I’m really concerned about is his ruling in the Project Veritas case, Bruce Campbell, the county party’s second vice chair, told New York Focus. “Does this person represent the values of the Democratic Party? To me, Charlie Wood doesn’t clear that bar.”

His selection “sets a terrible precedent for people who were elected as Republicans to be switching parties just for their own political gain,” said Verena Arnabal, chair of the Mamaroneck Democratic Committee.

Westchester Democratic Committee Chair Suzanne Berger said that while she doesn’t support or oppose Wood’s candidacy, she objects to those criticisms.

“To have a lynch mob, a cancel culture, because of one opinion written in 14 years on the bench strikes me as not a judicious process,” she told New York Focus when asked about his ruling in the Project Veritas case.

Asked what she meant by “lynch mob,” Berger said, “I mean sending press releases out to the press which have a point of view.”

In the Project Veritas case, Wood ruled that the Times’ First Amendment right to publish the memos was outweighed by the documents’ protection under attorney-client privilege. In February 2022, a state appeals court lifted Wood’s block on publication and said that the Times was not required to return or destroy the memos, though it didn’t overturn Wood’s ruling entirely.

It’s extremely rare to stop a newspaper from publishing material in its possession, and the ruling generated a strong backlash, including opinion articles in The New York Times and The Washington Post.

“Every time you restrain the press, for any period of time, the public’s interest in being educated is undermined,” said David Rudenstine, a professor at Cardozo School of Law and a First Amendment expert. “This particular opinion was really regrettable, and I think it was a judicial embarrassment.”

Wood isn’t embarrassed. “Of course I stand by it,” he told New York Focus. He declined to comment further on the case beyond saying that “there’s quite a bit of misinformation out there.”

Wood’s campaign manager, Jennifer Oelkers, told New York Focus that “the heart of Judge Wood’s ruling is that he sided with privacy, finding that by definition, attorney-client privileged documents are not matters of public interest.”

Every time you restrain the press, for any period of time, the public’s interest in being educated is undermined.

David Rudenstine, Cardozo School of Law professor

Oelkers is registered with the Conservative Party, whose platform includes opposing abortion and gun control. (She said that she has spent years working as a professional consultant for Democratic judicial candidates, and that “judicial seats are not political seats.”)

The last time a court had ordered the Times not to run a story was half a century earlier, in the famous 1971 Pentagon Papers case, when the US government attempted to block publication of top secret material related to the Vietnam War. A lower court barred the Times from publishing, but the Supreme Court overturned their decision, ruling 63 that the block was unconstitutional.

Jay Jacobs told New York Focus that he’s deferring to the Westchester Democratic Party on Wood’s candidacy, and noted that while Wood’s Republican past deserves scrutiny, he’s not ultimately bothered by it.

“I come from the suburbs. Lots of people registered as Republicans when they grew up, because you couldn’t get a job as a lifeguard at the beach if you weren’t a Republican,” Jacobs said. “How a person acts in their political life, that I think is more determinative as to whether or not they truly are in principle, and in values, Democrats.”

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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