Few Choices for Civil Court Judges: 21 Vacancies and Just Four Primary Races
One married couple running separately in Manhattan and Brooklyn represent half of all competitive races for Civil Court in New York City this primary election.
Carmen Pacheco is running to become a Civil Court judge in Manhattan. Her husband, Patrick Hayes Torres, is doing the same — in Brooklyn.
The couple, both attorneys who live in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn, are part of two races that make up half of just four contested races for Civil Court judgeships in the June 28 primary, all Democrats — despite there being 21 Civil Court vacancies in New York City this year.
That’s because, for the 17 other openings, there is just one candidate running, and no competitive primary, election records show. Only voters in Brooklyn, Queens and parts of Manhattan will have a choice on the ballot this month.
The primary is highly likely to determine who ultimately takes the job: Only six of the 21 vacancies have Republican or Conservative party candidates who may appear on November general election ballots, Board of Elections records show.
Judges are not required to live in the judicial district or borough where they serve.
Civil Court judges hold 10-year terms and have sway over thousands of cases a year where disputes involve $50,000 or less, a new threshold doubled by voters last year. After a judge joins the bench, the Office of Court Administration often transfers the jurists to serve in other courts, as well, including Family Court and Criminal Court, or as an Acting Supreme Court Justice.
Their roles are crucial. But voters do not often get the chance to choose who will get those jobs, court watchers say. With little attention paid to these way-down-the-ballot races, candidates boosted and vetted by political insiders usually have an easy path to primary victory.
Less interest from would-be challengers has led to a candidate deficit. Progressive groups traditionally at odds with the political establishment — like, in recent years, the Democratic Socialists of America — often ignore the judge races, said Howard Graubard, an election attorney working with several judicial candidates this cycle.
“The new reformers…and DSA usually don’t want to get involved,” he said in an email. “No one wants to contribute money but other lawyers, which creates its own issues; most unions not involved with the courts want to stay out.”
In each borough, party organizations and neighborhood-based political clubs help their nominees with petitioning and campaigning. Agents of the political parties will often attempt to get challengers to party-picked candidates thrown off the ballot on procedural grounds.
This cycle, for instance, Andy Marte, a controversial former director for the Brooklyn Democratic Party, filed a signature challenge against Chevone Sanon, the primary opponent of Robin Garson, a party-backed incumbent judge. The Board of Elections and a court later determined that too many of Sanon’s signatures were invalid, knocking her off the ballot and leaving Garson with no competition for the June race.
Even if a challenger successfully makes it to the primary ballot, winning can be tough.
Voters often don’t know much about judge candidates, and in a competitive judge race with low turnout, “party hacks” often determine the outcome, said Alan Flacks, a longtime newsletter writer on the city’s political party happenings.
“Party operatives, party members, political club members — they’ll be going to vote,” he said.
Voters in Manhattan, Brooklyn and Queens will get a chance to vote for judges in the June 28 primary. A full list of candidates is available at the end of this article.
This year, eight Civil Court judgeships are open, but voters will get to make a choice in only one of them in the upcoming primary.
That contest pits Hayes Torres, a private attorney and a board member for the Sunset Park Business Improvement District, against Philip Grant, a principal law clerk in Brooklyn’s civil court and a former prosecutor in the state attorney general’s Brooklyn office.
In a phone call, Hayes Torres said his experience in criminal defense and civil litigation taught him to keep the needs of the community in mind while on the bench.
“I stand with my clients when they get a conviction. I see what kind of damage it does to the family. I see the kids’ faces when they see their father, brother, or uncle going into incarceration,” he said.
Hayes Torres is running his race without the blessing of the county party establishment. In February, Grant was one of five candidates to get the Brooklyn Democratic Party’s official endorsement for civil judgeships out of eight total vacancies in the borough.
In an email, Grant told THE CITY he is “uniquely qualified” to serve with more than 30 years working in the public and private sector, representing people and the government at the trial level and through appeals.
“I’m proud of my record and my many battles for greater fairness, inclusion, and equal representation in the judiciary, and leave it to Brooklyn voters to choose the candidate that they feel will best serve our community,” he said.
As in previous years, the party points out that its picks are helping bring diversity to the bench. Four of its five civil judge candidates, including Grant, are people of color.
“The party has always promoted diversity in its judicial nominees and, in fact, there are independent reports showing electing judges yields greater diversity than an appointive system,” said Bob Liff, a spokesman for the Brooklyn Democratic Party. “The county leadership’s choices emerge through a process of consultation, interviewing and consensus among the district leaders on the executive committee.”
The party’s only white endorsee is Garson, the sitting judge whose primary opponent, Chevone Sanon, was knocked off the ballot. Garson is now all but guaranteed reelection, despite a previous misconduct investigation.
She was probed in 2007 by the state’s Commission on Judicial Misconduct for her alleged failure to report the criminal behavior of a family member, according to the Daily News. The result of the probe is unclear; a spokesperson for the commission said it does not comment on the result, or existence of, individual investigations.
In 2008, that family member, Michael Garson, himself a judge, was convicted for a forgery which enabled him to plunder an elderly relative’s savings. Robin Garson’s husband, Gerald Garson, yet another judge in the once powerful political family, was himself convicted in a separate case for bribery in 2007.
THE CITY attempted to seek comment from Garson through emails to her court staff. In a phone call, Garson’s court attorney Felicia Feinberg confirmed that she had seen the inquiry but declined to say anything further before hanging up.
In response to questions about the endorsement, Liff noted that Garson had been deemed qualified by an “independent screening panel” that vets candidates for the party.
Liff said that sitting judges who are found qualified by the panel are supported by the party “as a matter of policy and respect for judicial independence.”
“There have been situations where sitting judges were not found qualified when seeking re-election and were not backed by county leadership for that reason,” he added.
Hayes Torres did not get that screening panel’s approval from the Brooklyn party, something he chalks up to being “not part of who they wanted to come through to the system” — while noting he had no desire to “battle with the county.”
“These are their plumb spots, and they want to protect it,” he continued, noting that he had received “approved” candidate ratings from the New York City, Brooklyn, and LGBT bar associations.
In Manhattan, Pacheco, the spouse of Hayes Torres for nearly 21 years, is making her second try for a Civil Court judge spot. She ran in Brooklyn last year without the party’s endorsement, and lost with 32% of the vote in last June’s primary against the establishment-backed pick, Keisha Alleyne.
Now, in Lower Manhattan where she started her law practice 30 years ago, she is hoping for a better outcome against David Fraiden, an attorney, former judge and professional firebreather also running for the judge job.
Pacheco’s firm is based in Brooklyn now, but she says she has long been connected to Lower Manhattan, having previously run mentoring programs and pro bono legal services there.
“You know, it’s time. I’ve contributed so much before, in my time as a lawyer,” she told THE CITY. “I have given so much to the grassroots efforts and to the community. And I feel now that it’s important that I can make a bigger impact.”
The county party in Manhattan does not explicitly make endorsements. Instead, the party convenes a vetting process in which a panel of experts — including representatives from local law schools, professional organizations and bar associations — screen potential candidates. This year, the panel rated Pacheco as “most highly qualified,” the top category.
As a Latina woman who grew up in public housing in Gowanus, Brooklyn, she said she hopes to add to the diversity of the bench.
“I understand the importance of role models,” she said. “We look at the judiciary and it lacks the look or feel of the American people.”
Pacheco has recent personal experience with the city court system, stemming from a tenant dispute at a property she co-own with her law partner. As the Queens Eagle reported in 2019, the Bedford-Stuyvesant home racked up enough violations to end up on the public advocate’s “Worst Landlords List.”
Pacheco said at the time that the problems arose from a retaliatory tenant. She told THE CITY that the person would damage the building, then not allow the owners to fix anything. He allegedly threatened Pacheco and others, and was legally evicted after being convicted of assaulting a family member.
“He never paid a nickel of rent ever, ever, ever. I offered to get him placed in a good place [supportive housing] because he needed that assistance,” she said. “Now all he does is take me to court.”
Her competition, Fraiden, told THE CITY he’s running because “as much as ever, the system needs judges with a knowledge of the law and with a track record of fairness, compassion and integrity.”
A Bronx native, he now lives on the Lower East Side. In addition to working at a law firm in the South Bronx and representing clients in Family Court, Housing Court and Criminal Court, Fraiden has tried cases at all levels of the state court system. Most recently, he served as a U.S. Immigration Court judge after an appointment by President Trump’s U.S. Attorney General, William Barr, in 2020. He left the role to run for the Civil Court.
“There’s a reason why the best baseball managers come from being former players,” he told THE CITY. “You have to have played the game to understand how to manage the game…I bring real world judicial experience from day one, and have a track record of guiding litigants through the system in a fair and compassionate manner.”
The candidates both have just over a week to make their case to voters before the first ballots are cast. Early voting begins June 18.
For Pacheco, it means she often spends more time with the couple’s terrier, Brody, than spouse and fellow candidate Hayes Torres.
“We both get up very early in the morning and we miss each other,” she said. “We’re out, sleeping or campaigning. And we’re doing it for the love of the law.”
All the Candidates
Below are all candidates running for Civil Court in Manhattan, Brooklyn and Queens in the June 28 primary. There are no primary contests in The Bronx or Staten Island this year:
Manhattan’s 2nd Municipal District
Democratic voters on the Lower East Side, East Village and in parts of SoHo will cast ballots in this primary race. Look up the boundaries of the municipal court districts here.
- Carmen Pacheco: An attorney and founding member of the firm Pacheco & Lugo.
- David Alan Fraiden: A former immigration judge with previous experience as an administrative law judge at the city’s Office of Administrative Trials and Hearings.
Manhattan’s 4th Municipal District
Democratic voters on the east side between 14th to 58th streets will cast ballots in this primary race. Look up the boundaries of the municipal court districts here.
- Matthew Bondy: An attorney currently serving at the city’s Department of Consumer and Worker Protection who has previously worked for the Mayor’s Office of Special Enforcement and for private firms, according to Bondy’s campaign website.
- Terry McCormick: A law partner practicing commercial litigation at Mintz & Gold LLP, a law firm, with previous experience in private firms, as a pro bono arbitrator in Small Claims Court and as a law clerk in the U.S. Court of International Trade.
This is a county-wide primary race, which means all Democratic voters in Brooklyn can cast ballots.
- Patrick Hayes Torres: An attorney in private practice at his fim in Brooklyn, who previously worked in the Brooklyn DA’s office and, before becoming an attorney, in the insurance industry, his campaign website says.
- Philip F. Grant: A principal law clerk at the Commercial Division of the Supreme Court in King County and a former assistant attorney general in the AG’s Brooklyn office.
This is a county-wide primary race, which means all Democratic voters in Queens can cast ballots.
- Devian Daniels: An attorney with experience as a City Council legal counselor, arbitrator for the MTA and in private practice, she told the Queens Eagle.
- Maria T. Gonzales: A Jackson Heights-based attorney who attended Cardozo Law School, state court records say.
- Karen Lin: A former Housing Court judge, court attorney in both Surrogate’s Court and State Supreme Court, and chief of staff in the State Senate, according to Lin’s campaign website.
Thomas Medardo Oliva: A former Bronx prosecutor now in private practice, Olivia serves as president of the Latino Lawyers Association of Queens County and on the Board of Editors at the New York Law Journal, according to Oliva’s campaign website.