Monday, January 30, 2006
Judging the Judges
HERE'S WHO 'ELECTS' BROOKLYN JUDGES
The upper echelon of the Brooklyn judiciary sits on a rotting bench. Since last year, 10 of Kings County's top judges have come under official scrutiny for criminal or ethical violations. That's one in six. But by our reckoning, there are serious questions regarding at least half the borough's elected state Supreme Court justices. Some are unfit; others are only marginally qualified.
The fault for this rests with the Kings County Democratic Party's judicial screening committee and Assemblyman Clarence Norman, the party's boss. Shocked? Don't be. They've been bringing dishonor to the bench for years. At election time, Brooklynites had little choice but to rubber-stamp a slate of predetermined winners (we use the term "winners" loosely).
Consider the aforementioned 10: Reynold Mason, removed from the bench for ethical breaches. Richard Huttner, censured for misusing his office. Victor Barron, imprisoned for extorting a bribe. Edward Rappaport, under investigation for not reporting that he knew about Barron's crime. William Garry, Randolph Jackson, Joseph Levine, David Vaughan and Larry Martin, all slapped for not obeying rules on fiduciary assignments. (Martin also was publicly admonished for writing to other judges seeking leniency on behalf of his friends.) And Surrogate Judge Michael Feinberg, under investigation for allegedly looting the estates of the dead.
That these misfits could become judges is an outrage. But change is possible. Even in Brooklyn. Until now, the screening committee's membership was known only to Norman and the party's executive director. Under pressure from his own troops and this newspaper, Norman has revealed the names. Now we know why the list of 13 was hush-hush. It's an embarrassment. They are mostly Court St. lawyers from the clubby Brooklyn legal world, with histories not unlike those of the inept judges they selected. Here are the worst:
Jerome Karp chairs the panel. Last year, he told a Civil Court judge seeking a Supreme Court spot to get lost because only Norman picks the committee's candidates. Karp, who represents lawyers in hot water, also defends bad judges. Among them, former Justice Jerome Cohen, who was removed in 1989; Civil Court Judge Samuel Weinberg, who pleaded guilty in 1987 to racketeering, and Surrogate Bernard Bloom, who was censured in 1995. Also, Larry Martin (see above). It was Karp and his predecessors who put all these men on the Brooklyn bench in the first place. At least he stands by his products.
Ravi Batra is the vice chairman and employs party boss Norman in his law firm. Batra was at the center of a scandal over the Cypress Hills Cemetery, where Huttner funneled him all the legal work. That forced open the Brooklyn legal/judicial mess. Now, Batra is entangled in the suspicious term-limits lawsuit that would prematurely oust City Council Speaker Gifford Miller and five other Council members. Could the Brooklyn machine be using its handpicked judges to sink Miller? With this bunch, anything is possible.
Louis Rosenthal, a former judge, handles the estates of dead Brooklynites. Under the direction of Surrogate Judge Feinberg (another product of the committee and Norman), Rosenthal squeezes millions from the estates for legal work that he refuses to document. He also has given hefty commissions to Huttner's two sons. Rosenthal and Feinberg are under investigation for their misdeeds. Ironically, should Feinberg go down, Rosenthal will help choose his replacement.
Barry Kamins is a major fund-raiser for Brooklyn District Attorney Joe Hynes, another Norman lackey. When the Barron case fell into Hynes' lap, Kamins came in as Barron's lawyer and cut a sweetheart deal with the accommodating prosecutor. Barron, who could have blown the lid off courthouse corruption, was allowed to stay mum.
Ronald Aiello was Brooklyn's top judge until he was fired for padding the court's payroll with two of his relatives. A former head of the judges union, Aiello has publicly defended his old, corrupt comrades Rappaport and Huttner. Last year, he was put on the state lobbying commission by state Sen. Marty Connor, a Brooklyn hack who used government offices to run his legal practice.
Jeff Feldman, the party's executive director, runs the committee. He holds a $64,000-a-year state Senate job (thanks to Connor). His salary falls just below the level requiring disclosure of outside income. Feldman also partakes in the system: He made his wife a judge.
With a crew like this picking jurists, no wonder Brooklyn's courts are in disarray. These blatant conflicts of interest scream out for merit selection of judges. We rest our case - for now.