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How Local Democratic Leaders Pick Their Own ‘Elected’ Judges

Bypassing primaries, Democratic Party officials ‘backfill’ Civil Court candidates who have no chance of losing.

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Manhattan’s Civil Court building

Hiram Alejandro Durán/ THE CITY

Edward King didn’t run to be one of the Brooklyn Democratic Party’s judicial nominees for civil court in this June’s primary election. But the veteran attorney is going to be one anyway — thanks to his popularity with party executives.

At an internal meeting Tuesday night, the Brooklyn Democratic Party’s executive committee chose King as what’s known as a “backfill” candidate, replacing Craig Walker, another Democratic candidate who actually won a Civil Court primary in June but promptly gave it up.

King will appear on the November ballot, quite likely as the only candidate for the seat.

Walker, an incumbent Civil Court judge, was playing a time-honored game in New York’s carefully choreographed judicial nomination process. In June, with the party leadership’s endorsement, he ran unopposed in the Democratic primary to retain his Civil Court seat. Then in August, with the party leadership’s backing, he won the party’s Supreme Court nomination — and gave up the Civil Court nomination he had just secured in the primary.

Walker’s exit left the Civil Court nomination up to the borough’s Democratic party executives — handing them the power to effectively appoint a judge who is supposed to be elected, since most candidates for Civil Court in New York City run unopposed in general elections.

Civil court judges preside over financial disputes under $50,000, and most during their 10-year terms serve in other courts — including family, housing, criminal, and supreme court, where they can make life-changing decisions about custody rights, bail, evictions, and evidentiary disputes in felony cases. 

At the executive committee meeting, King, who had support from Brooklyn’s Democratic Party boss Rodneyse Bichotte Hermelyn, won in a close vote. But even some of those who showed up to support him felt the process was undemocratic.

“It’s not even like these guys got to go run — you know, he’s in,” said Charles Barron, a party district leader and City Council member from East New York. “And the public had nothing to do with it. That’s unacceptable.”

Councilmember Charles Barron, right, at a June protest of the Brooklyn Democratic Party poll worker selection process.

Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

“This process needs a radical overhaul,” continued Barron, who has long clashed with the party’s top leadership. “And it should be controlled by the people.”

‘This Is The System That We Have’

Backfilling judicial nominees is a common practice in New York City, allowing Democratic party insiders in overwhelmingly blue districts to push their picks onto the bench.

This year’s contest in Brooklyn pitted King, who won most Black party executives from the borough’s central and eastern stretches, against Stephen Burzio, a law clerk who put together an heterodox coalition of some south Brooklyn white ethnics, including former party boss Frank Seddio, as well as numerous Latino and white progressives.

Reached by phone, King, who would be one of the few Black male judges in Brooklyn’s Civil Court if elected, said his nomination was a victory for “diversity and inclusion.”

King said he did not run in this year’s primary because it would have been very expensive, and pointed out that reform-minded critics could change the backfilling process if they wanted to.

“Until then, this is the system that we have and you have to follow the law,” he said.

A spokesperson for the Brooklyn Democratic Party declined to comment for this story.

Manhattan also has a backfill opportunity this year, thanks to Civil Court Judge Lisa Sokoloff’s expected hop to Supreme Court.

Most political observers interviewed by THE CITY said only one candidate, L. Austin D’Souza, currently a law clerk in The Bronx, is expected to throw his hat in the ring for that post-primary backfill process. It will involve a vote by a group of low-level party delegates, known as county committee members, at the Hudson Guild Theater in Chelsea on Thursday.

Like King in Brooklyn, D’Souza chose not to run in the primary, but he has locked down numerous endorsements including those of Manhattan Borough President Mark Levine, State Sen. Brad Hoylman, Councilmember Christopher Marte and 10 Manhattan Democratic Party district leaders.

Some party and progressive activists alleged that high-ranking members of the party discouraged other candidates from running.

“There were deals made with other candidates not to run so that a particular candidate could run,” said one longtime district leader, who requested anonymity to avoid reprisal from party leaders. “It seems like other candidates were discouraged from running with the promise of not being impeded the next time around.”

“We demand an open process, not a rigged convention,” Allen Roskoff, president of the Jim Owles Liberal Democratic Club, told THE CITY in a text message.

D’Souza’s supporters argued that the lack of competition for the backfill is merely a sign of the candidate’s overwhelming strength among a small pool of viable contenders.

David Siffert, a friend of D’Souza’s and research director of NYU Law’s Center on Civil Justice, points out the internal party backfill process in Manhattan typically narrows the pool of competitors to those few who have gone through the party’s screening panel.

Of those, Siffert concedes, some potential contenders may have felt pressure not to run, even if it wasn’t due to the threat of outright retaliation.

“The idea is very much like, ‘You wait your turn and you’ll get it,’ which is a big problem,” he said. “But there’s a lot of waiting your turn, and it pays off.” 

Paul Newell, D’Souza’s attorney, claimed other potential candidates may have found a backfill campaign too daunting. 

“It’s not an easy thing to do. You got to go through and call 240 people and cajole them,” he said, tallying the rough number of County Committee members. “It’s like a lot of work.”

In an email, Manhattan Democratic Party Executive Director Kyle Hudson Ishmael disputed claims that the process is unfair.

“The County Party does not select a nominee, rather the members of the County Committee will vote on who the Democratic nominee will be,” said Ishmael. “It is our responsibility as a Party to run the logistics of the meeting, not the substance of who gets voted for what.”

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