Inside the Chaos Brewing in the Manhattan Democratic Party

A raucous emergency meeting featured escalating alarm, bewilderment, a hot mic, dueling accusations of conflicts of interest, and a dramatic vote with two surprise twists.

Chris Gelardi and Arabella Saunders   ·   August 10, 2023
The Manhattan Democratic Party will hold its 2023 judicial nominating convention on Thursday evening. | Manhattan Democrats

A Manhattan Democratic Party meeting descended into turmoil Tuesday night when the party’s second highest ranking official went all-in on an effort to scrap a process that had cut his wife from the party’s shortlist of judicial nominees.

It was two hours into an emergency video conference. The judicial nomination convention, at which the county Democrats would select judges to put on the ballot for state Supreme Court, was days away, and party judiciary committee members were expressing regret over a recent decision to overturn their process of narrowing their list of candidates. Observers, too — local Democratic officials, attorneys, party members — had also begun to chime in to voice alarm over the move, and the committee was gearing up to backtrack.

Then Domenico Minerva, the Manhattan Democrats’ county chair, spoke up. For 11 minutes, he rehashed allegations that those who came up with the shortlist had violated procedural rules — charges that, most who spoke in the meeting had decided, were either unfounded or trivial.

Minerva also addressed the elephant in the room: His wife, civil court judge Emily Morales-Minerva, was one of the candidates for nomination.

Morales-Minerva didn’t make the shortlist the committee was looking to reinstate. And she was at the center of allegations calling the shortlist’s credibility into question.

After Minerva broke his silence, the meeting — attended by two New York Focus journalists — went downhill: escalating alarm, legal confusion, hot mic comments, dueling accusations of conflicts of interest, and a dramatic vote with two surprise twists.

“I am astonished that people who know better would allow this to go forward,” a committee member said after the dam broke.

“By burning the house down, we’re giving the impression of impropriety that is going to end up in all the papers,” a Democratic party official predicted.

The nominating convention will be held on Thursday night. In interviews with New York Focus, the opposing sides have tried to portray a united front — while continuing to express disbelief at the other’s actions.

Both sides seem to agree, though, that the party’s process for selecting nominees — long held up among New York politicos and court watchers as one of the state’s most upstanding — needs fixing.

When it comes to state judges, the Manhattan Democratic Party is an outlier. In New York, general election nominations for lower court benches come directly from county parties rather than primary elections — and in most counties, the party leadership picks nominees directly. But Manhattan convenes panels of independent volunteers, who screen and interview applicants and create shortlists of the most qualified candidates. With limited exceptions, it’s from those lists that the party selects nominees — who are then all but guaranteed to breeze through their elections in the heavily blue borough.

The process has been relatively effective at preventing political forces from nominating bad judges, court watchers say. “It’s a successful system,” said Victor Kovner, a lawyer who helped create it more than 50 years ago. “It protects the public, protects the bar and judiciary, and protects the Democratic Party.”

This year’s general elections include three open slots for Manhattan’s Supreme Court, which hears civil and felony criminal trials. In late June, the Manhattan Democrats convened their screening panel, and over the next three weeks, the chosen volunteers — mostly representatives of local legal associations, plus a handful from advocacy groups — interviewed 19 applicants, checked their references, and dug into their records. They came up with a shortlist of nine, and the party announced them at a July 20 fundraiser. Emily Morales-Minerva didn’t make the cut.

But her husband heard complaints about the panel. In a meeting last week, he told the judiciary committee that two candidates had told him about sparsely attended panel interviews. He also said that party leadership had learned that the administrator of the panel hadn’t gathered written statements from panelists declaring that they had no conflicts of interest — a violation of party rules.

Outside the meeting, party leadership had also been discussing another concern — related to Minerva’s wife. A panelist had allegedly twice mentioned her candidacy to people outside the process, violating a confidentiality policy.

“They voted to invalidate the countless volunteer hours of the panel members.”

—Meredith Miller, panel administrator

At the end of the meeting, the judiciary committee voted unanimously to reject the panel’s shortlist. Minerva, a voting member of the committee by way of his leadership position in the county party, was eligible to vote, but at the suggestion of a committee member, he abstained. “I also saw there was no need for me to vote because they were unanimous,” he told New York Focus.

It was the first time in anyone’s memory that the judiciary committee had rejected the panel’s work. And there was little in the party rules about what to do in that situation. That Friday, the committee posted an announcement on the Manhattan Democrats website that all 19 original candidates — including Morales-Minerva — would be considered at the judicial convention.

But there was another problem: The committee voted without questioning the panel.

For the first half of Tuesday night’s video meeting, judiciary committee members peppered the panel’s volunteer administrator, Touro Law Center professor Meredith Miller, with questions about what came to be called alleged “procedural irregularities.”

When it came to panel members’ attendance, at least one candidate had complained that only half the panel was present during their interview, a judiciary committee member told Miller.

“That did not happen,” she responded. Miller, who was present at every interview and kept attendance records, said that, at worst, three panel members were absent at once, and that no candidate missed more than two meetings — in line with requirements set in the panel’s handbook.

The handbook also includes procedures for conflict disclosures — the subject of the second alleged issue — requiring that the panelists sign statements affirming that they meet panel criteria and don’t have vested interests in the outcome of the process. Miller asserted — and a judiciary committee co-chair confirmed to New York Focus — that, since the onset of Covid-19 and the transition to video panel meetings, signed forms had been replaced with verbal conflict disclosures.

“All of the sudden, however, it is a ‘serious’ irregularity?” Miller posed to panel members last week in an email reviewed by New York Focus. No one had alleged any actual conflict of interest. “And they voted to invalidate the countless volunteer hours of the panel members without first simply asking everyone to retroactively submit such a statement?”

Finally, Miller also had an explanation for the panel’s alleged confidentiality breaches. At Tuesday’s meeting, she explained that party leaders were concerned to learn that a panelist had cc’d someone outside the panel on an email to a candidate, now identified as Morales-Minerva. But the cc’d person was the panelist’s assistant, and Miller reminded the panel of the confidentiality requirement after learning of the incident.

She also explained that a panelist had conducted a reference call to Morales-Minerva’s former supervising judge — a move she described as “due diligence.” But because Morales-Minerva didn’t list the judge as a reference, party leaders deemed it a breach of confidentiality. Keith Wright, the Manhattan Democrats’ top official — who beat back an attempted coup in 2019 with Minerva’s help — personally called Miller to demand that she remove the panelist from the process, she wrote in last week’s email.

“It seems that the leadership of the Manhattan Democratic Party has a different view of diligence,” she continued. “They did not seem to want [panel] members to go ‘off list’ to check references, at least not for their preferred candidates.”

Spokespeople for Wright and the Manhattan Democratic Party did not respond to inquiries from New York Focus, nor did Morales-Minerva’s office.

Most of those at Tuesday’s meeting — judiciary committee members and observers — agreed with Miller that the allegations were spurious.

But some remained steadfast. Among the most forceful: Domenico Minerva.

After introducing himself, Minerva attempted to waive away rumors — which no one had yet explicitly mentioned — that rejecting the panel’s shortlist was part of a plan he orchestrated to get his wife a nomination. He claimed that his wife “is not running this year” — that is, she hadn’t been attending political fundraisers or courting delegates, and didn’t expect to win a nomination, even though she had applied for it. “So take that all out of your minds and remove that from the conversation.”

That’s “disingenuous,” Curtis Arluck, the judiciary committee co-chair, told New York Focus. Morales-Minerva “went into the panel seeking to be found to be most highly qualified, and did not come out of the panel,” he said. Arluck said it wasn’t announced that Morales-Minerva wasn’t seriously running until Tuesday’s meeting. Miller, the panel administrator, was also surprised. “I have not heard anything about that,” she told New York Focus.

Minerva then offered rebuttals to all of Miller’s explanations. He stressed the importance of written conflict disclosure forms, which he said was step one in the rulebook. He charged that there were “definitely” more than three people absent on the final day of interviews. And with respect to confidentiality: “It’s not like a subjective, ‘Oh, it wasn’t a big breach or a little breach,’” he said. “It’s a breach.”

“At the end of the day, the rules are the rules,” he said later in the meeting.

“I am astonished that people who know better would allow this to go forward.”

—E.E. Keenan, judiciary committee member

More than two hours into the meeting, judiciary committee member E.E. Keenan introduced a motion to overturn last week’s decision and re-accept the shortlist. It seemed as if there were six committee members present, and they voted 4–2 in favor.

“Okay, so the motion is adopted,” said Arluck.

But the county party parliamentarian, who was recording the vote, interrupted. Certain executive officials in attendance were also, under the rules, deemed members of the judiciary committee and entitled to vote.

The parliamentarian called on Wright, the county party’s top official: “Nay.”

The last eligible voter: Minerva. “Nay,” he said.

The vote was 4–4. In the case of a tie, the motion failed.

From Wright’s video panel, still unmuted from the vote, came a raspy chuckle: “Ha ha ha ha, there we go.”

Committee members — particularly Keenan — were shocked.

“Mr. Minerva, in your own interest, sir, please recuse yourself from this before the chair has to rule you disqualified,” Keenan implored the county chair after the vote. “To not do so would subject this body to liability.”

Arluck also expressed dismay. As judiciary committee chair, he didn’t feel as though he had the authority to stop anyone from voting, he told New York Focus. Yet he was “disappointed” that Minerva didn’t recuse himself. “While it may have been acceptable for him to address one specific issue — the alleged actions of one panel member — it was not appropriate for him to lead the charge to undermine virtually every aspect of this panel.”

But the surprises weren’t over. Shortly after the two added votes, Keenan pointed out that another member of the judiciary committee, Arthur Schwartz, was at the meeting, but hadn’t voted.

Schwartz seemed unsure of his role. “I’m on the committee, right?” he asked. But he submitted a vote in favor of Keenan’s motion. It passed 5–4, and the committee reinstated the panel’s shortlist.

Officials asked aloud whether there were any other committee members secretly present. “It sounds like there are none,” announced Arluck, the co-chair. “I say this with tiredness, not triumph.”

But Minerva launched one more Hail Mary. He pointed out that Schwartz, the late tie breaker and a labor and civil rights attorney, was representing someone who was suing the county party.

“We’re going to talk about conflicts,” Minerva said. “He’s as adverse as anybody in this process, I’m not sure how he’s eligible to vote.” (Schwartz responded that the lawsuit was “over one district leader election.”)

Nobody bit. Arluck disqualified neither Minerva nor Schwartz.

“We continue to have an excellent process,” he said. The meeting adjourned.

Chris Gelardi is a reporter for New York Focus investigating the state’s criminal-legal system. His work has appeared in more than a dozen other outlets, most frequently The Nation, The Intercept, and The Appeal. He is a past recipient of awards from Columbia… more
Arabella Saunders is a Report for America corps member covering economic development for New York Focus. Her reporting has also appeared in Vice, HuffPost, DCReport, and The Assembly NC.
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