Holding Court: How Brooklyn’s Democratic Party Execs Select the Judges on Your Ballot
At the Kings County party convention last week, a dozen nominees got named by acclamation. Behind the scenes, conflicts almost came to blows.
On a muggy evening last week at a golf course in southern Brooklyn, more than 200 Democratic Party judicial delegates packed into a large white tent. They’d been elected in June from across the borough to be the people’s voice at the annual convention where the party decides on its nominees for Brooklyn’s Supreme Court.
In reality, however, their choices were predetermined.
Two days earlier, Kings County Democratic Party executives had hashed out a single slate of 12 candidates for the delegates to vote up or down on, leaving them no chance to weigh individual contestants for the bench.
Standing at the front of the tent with a microphone, Jeffrey Feldman, a longtime party operative in a black suit and light blue tie, read off the pre-selected names, and asked for the delegates to say “AYE” or “NAY.”
After hearing shouts from both sides for a few seconds, the party functionary had made up his mind. “The ayes have it,” he told the crowd to applause.
Feldman was still reading off a sheet of paper ratifying the vote, when Katie Walsh, a first-time judicial delegate from Sunset Park, walked up to a microphone stand in the crowd and interrupted him.
“You haven’t got evidence that the ‘nays’ were the minority so you have to go and do a roll call vote,” she said.
“Motion for roll call vote,” Walsh continued. “Motion for roll call vote!”
Within seconds, her mic was cut off.
The brief public spectacle that got those 12 names on the November ballot for Brooklyn Supreme Court offers only a hint of the true nature of the process — which began behind closed doors months before the official convention.
It featured significant sums of money moving between campaign and committee accounts, phone calls from party leaders strategizing on how to best get their picks through, and even near fisticuffs at a private meeting of party executives deciding on the candidates.
And this was a relatively harmonious year.
From the outside, the process couldn’t appear more democratic: judicial screening panels, elected delegates, and a public vote on which names make it to the general election ballot.
But in practice, critics have contended for decades, it’s a system that’s been designed to allow the Brooklyn Democratic Party leaders to hand-pick the borough’s Supreme Court justices, who preside over life-changing cases for residents ranging from criminal felony charges to intra-party election disputes to high-dollar civil matters.
While the party nominees still have to win on the general election ballot in November, in blue Brooklyn, convention endorsements almost guarantee candidates a seat on the bench.
“It’s a little skit, a little theater skit, where the party leaders — essentially with different criteria that’s known only to themselves — select people, and delegates just go along,” said Margarita Lopez Torres, a former Brooklyn Surrogate’s Court judge who challenged the process in a failed lawsuit that went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court in 2007.
“It’s certainly not the best way to select judges,” she added. “We’re all kind of stuck with it.”
What Happens in the Lobster House Stays in the Lobster House
Two days before the convention, the real decisions were hashed out at Nick’s Lobster House, an old-school seafood joint on Brooklyn’s southeastern shoreline.
There, over plates of calamari and chicken wings, party executives haggled over their preferred candidates for the bench — many of whom had hobnobbed at their local political clubs, helped them with their candidate petitions, and made more than $108,000 in combined campaign contributions to party leaders’ election accounts and clubs in the months and years beforehand.
Cheryl Gonzales, a Housing Court judge whom party executives decided to reward with a nomination that day, had previously shelled out nearly $12,000 in campaign contributions to party leaders, the party committee and affiliated Democratic clubs.
She received 40 votes from party leaders, more than any other candidate in the pack.
Aaron Maslow, a former election attorney for Brooklyn’s Democratic party boss, Flatbush Assemblymember Rodneyse Bichotte Hermelyn, also got the nod from the executive committee.
Over his career as an attorney, Maslow had spent more than $30,000 on mailers and campaign contributions to help party executives close to the establishment with most of it going to his wife, a former party leader who last year chose to resign from her post over her racially charged comments about Chinese and Palestinian people.
And in the months leading up to the June primary, the election attorney had also worked to help numerous establishment-backed Democrats, including some of the party leaders weighing in that day, with their signature petitions.
“If you had your petitions filed this year… they were done by Aaron Maslow for free night after night,” said Frank Seddio, an influential party executive from Canarsie, speaking on Maslow’s behalf at the secret pre-meeting.
Seddio, who clashed with progressives in his previous role as party boss, closed his speech for Maslow by noting that the party chair’s former election attorney would be an outstanding judge “especially in the election part,” a reference to the courtroom where establishment and progressive Democrats litigate pivotal intra-party disputes.
Other district leaders, hailing from self-styled reform clubs, immediately pushed back during the meeting, pointing out that Maslow was vying for the Supreme Court nomination despite having never served as a lower court judge — a typical stepping-stone position.
“We have a list of people who have served in the civil court for a length of time with stellar records who aren’t being considered,” said Doug Schneider, a party executive from Park Slope and a civil rights attorney by trade, to the gathering. “And they’re not being considered because Aaron Maslow did a lot of favors for people.”
Those arguments coming from the reform faction didn’t move the majority of party executives allied with Bichotte Hermelyn, all of whom voted him in.
Despite considerable alignment between the Democratic establishment and party dissidents on most of the other candidates, the night ended with Seddio having to be held back from fighting another outgoing party leader, David Schwartz.
Schwartz had recently lost his seat as district leader in a close race after facing considerable opposition from party boss Bichotte Hermelyn and her ally Mayor Eric Adams, after Schwartz endorsed Andrew Yang rather than Adams in last year’s mayoral race.
That night at Nick’s Lobster House, Schwartz questioned whether Seddio had misrepresented which nominees were backed by a party leader who was absent from the meeting. Following the meeting, Seddio had to be restrained from physically going after him, video of the incident shows.
NEWS: Last week, Brooklyn Democratic Party executives held a secret meeting to hash out their judicial nominees for NY Supreme Court—ahead of the party's official judicial convention.— George Joseph (@georgejoseph94) August 8, 2022
Afterwards, party exec Frank Seddio had to be blocked from physically going after a colleague: pic.twitter.com/KZreVNLKBj
“What I am is a fucking Sicilian who will take your fucking heart out,” the septuaginarian shouted as Schwartz pointed his cell phone camera at him. “You should only suffer a terrible death.”
Seddio and Schwartz didn’t respond to voice messages seeking comment.
A number of witnesses said the group was kicked out of the restaurant after the blowup.
“The restaurant staff was like, ‘Everyone needs to leave,’” recalled Julio Peña III, a Sunset Park party executive affiliated with the New Kings Democrats, a dissident progressive caucus. “It’s embarrassing that we’re resorting to violence and aggression at that level.”
Two days later, hundreds of judicial delegates ventured out to the Marine Park Golf Course for the official vote.
As the proceedings began, Seddio congregated on the left side of the clubhouse with the dozen pre-selected nominees while the delegates — who were nominally voting on the candidates — went to the right from the clubhouse, noisily filling more than 200 white folding chairs assembled neatly in rows.
“The quicker we can get started the quicker we can leave,” party leader Joe Bova said shortly after 6:30 p.m. in a bid to hush the crowd.
In an oddity of the rules governing the evening’s process, the attendees were required to spend more than 45 minutes conducting a roll call vote to nominate the person who would chair the convention vote. The meeting chair, Feldman, was approved by a vote of 167 to 38.
But there was no count of votes for the actual nomination of judges, despite Walsh’s subsequent attempt to request one from the crowd of delegates.
“How can you possibly take this vote of something that is so critically important, like voting for New York State Supreme Court judges, and do it in such a way that it’s based on the loudest yelling of voices?” Walsh said in a subsequent interview with THE CITY.
The entire affair — including thank you speeches by most of the nominees — concluded in 99 minutes.
Afterward, in a press release, party spokespeople declared the convention was “a success, with delegates civically engaged in a fair and transparent process,” and pointed to the historic diversity of the nominees.
The final slate included the nomination of six Black female candidates — including one who is likely to be the first ever Haitian-American on the bench in Brooklyn.
“Congratulations to all the nominees, who have proven track records of progressive judicial and courtroom achievements and will continue to help bring fairness and impartiality to the courts,” said party chair Bichotte Hermelyn. “I’m ecstatic to see these groundbreaking nominations happen under my leadership, and I’m confident Brooklyn’s judicial system will remain in extremely capable hands when the nominees are elected in November.”
Along the Way
The formal process for landing a nomination begins earlier in the year with screenings that determine which candidates are eligible for the party’s approval — but the glad-handing, schmoozing and campaign donations are a years-long endeavor.
Some good government groups have also questioned the makeup of the judicial screening panel, whose attorneys sometimes land paid assignments from sitting judges whose qualifications they review.
Former judge Lopez Torres filed her lawsuit challenging the process for picking Supreme Court nominees in 2004 after she was repeatedly prevented from participating in the party’s screenings and encountered obstacles in her bid to identify the names of judicial delegates whom she might convince to nominate her to a seat.
While the lawsuit ultimately failed in the country’s highest court, the Brooklyn federal district court ruling unequivocally agreed with Lopez Torres that the process was rigged to preclude any challenges from judges not endorsed by party leaders.
“The plaintiffs have demonstrated convincingly that local major party leaders — not the voters or the delegates to the judicial nominating conventions — control who becomes a Supreme Court Justice and when,” wrote former federal judge John Gleeson in a January 2006 ruling. “The result is an opaque, undemocratic selection procedure that violates the rights of the voters and the rights of candidates who lack the backing of the local party leaders.”
Gleeson found that while technically there were other paths to the ballot available to candidates not backed by county leaders — including petitioning to get on the ballot themselves or convincing judicial delegates to nominate them from the convention floor — the obstacles were such that these options were practically impossible in the real world.
He noted in his ruling granting a preliminary injunction that in the four decades prior, no one recommended for the ballot by county leaders had failed to secure a nomination by the judicial delegates.
“Reasonably diligent candidates who lack the support of entrenched party leaders stand virtually no chance of obtaining a major party nomination, no matter how qualified they are and no matter how much support they enjoy among the registered voters of the party,” he wrote.
Lopez and self-styled party reformers thought Gleeson’s blistering decision, which was subsequently affirmed by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, signaled the end of Brooklyn’s top-down convention process.
But two years after that initial victory, the U.S. Supreme Court reversed the lower court findings.
The question of whether New York’s convention system ensured judicial candidates had a “fair shot” was for the legislatures, not judges, to determine, noted Justice Antonin Scalia in the 9-0 opinion.
Wrote Scalia: “Party conventions, with their attendant ‘smoke-filled rooms’ and domination by party leaders, have long been an accepted manner of selecting party candidates.”