In a blistering 600-page court filing, a former state Supreme Court judge has accused several prominent lawyers affiliated with the Brooklyn Democratic Party of committing professional misconduct in a successful campaign to oust her from the bench.
It’s the latest shot in an seven-year legal battle the ex-judge, Laura Lee Jacobson, has waged alleging that court insiders exploited the party’s secretive judicial screening committee to punish her for her judicial independence.
“I’m being punished because I refuse to say, ‘Oh, this is an important person, I can’t find against him,’” Jacobson said in an interview with THE CITY, referring to the committee’s alleged retaliation. “That’s not what my job as a judge is. That’s not what anybody’s job as a judge is.”
In Brooklyn, a nod from the Democratic Party judicial screening committee is essential to getting on the bench in state Supreme Court, which decides on most felony and high-dollar civil matters. In her new legal papers, Jacobson asserts that the panel rated her “not qualified” without justification, effectively killing her judicial career, in retaliation for rulings against several party-connected attorneys.
Those attorneys included Frank Carone; Martin Edelman, the head of the committee; and Steven Finkelstein, then a member of the committee. Carone served as counsel to the Kings County Democratic Party before becoming Mayor Eric Adams’ first chief of staff. He has since returned to private practice and is advocating on behalf of major real estate projects.
In an email, Carone dismissed Jacobson’s claims, pointing to her previous challenges that were rejected in federal and state court. Edelman and Finkelstein did not respond to requests for comment.
Jacobson withdrew her candidacy after the screening panel rejected her appeal of the poor rating. But despite the committee’s written guarantee that the finding would be kept confidential, the following month the New York Post ran a story about Jacobson’s rating, citing anonymous party sources, one of whom said she was “not the brightest bulb in the courthouse.”
Now Jacobson is asking a state appellate court to reverse the initial 2022 state court ruling against her, which held that the party’s screening committee had private disciplinary rules against leaking that she had no standing to challenge.
In her appeal, Jacobson argues that the leaking of the allegedly contrived rating was a violation of New York state’s Rules of Professional Conduct, which hold that lawyers must not make false statements about judges that could “undermine public confidence in the administration of justice.”
The ex-judge is being represented by Ravi Batra, who was once himself a member of the party’s judicial screening committee and a close ally of former party boss Clarence Norman, who was convicted of extortion in 2007.
“If there is no judicial integrity or judicial independence, every lawyer should become a plumber or a car mechanic or something else,” said Batra in a statement.
Anthony Genovesi, a lawyer representing the Brooklyn Democratic Party in the litigation, did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
Wrong Side of the Law
Jacobson, a native of Brooklyn’s Seagate neighborhood, won a civil court seat in 1990. Twelve years later she was found qualified by the judicial screening committee for a 14-year term on the state Supreme Court, but once elected she ran into conflicts with lawyers in, or close to, party leadership.
In 2014, Jacobson sided with nurses’ unions during a heated battle over an effort by the State University of New York to sell Cobble Hill’s Long Island College Hospital to developers, who wanted to scrap many of the institution’s medical services and build on its valuable real estate.
Following complaints from nurses that the development team had ignored a pledge to maintain their employment, Jacobson, filling in for another judge, temporarily delayed the sale, ordered SUNY to keep the hospital emergency room open and shielded the nurses from layoffs.
“I said, ‘You know what, I’m not going to do that to them,” Jacobson recalls, referring to the potential nurse layoffs. “I’m going to leave the status quo, and wait until it’s assigned to a judge who can hear everything.”
A few weeks later, Jacobson claims that Carone asked her husband, Peter Weiss, if he could take her out to lunch sometime.
“Peter said, ‘It’s never going to happen. She’s never going to go to lunch with you. Because she doesn’t do that. She doesn’t have lunch with the attorneys. The end,’” she recalled.
Carone vehemently denied Jacobson’s claims.
“There is absolutely no truth whatsoever to this new twist about me asking for a meal or anything like that, just like there is no truth to her tired claims which have failed at every level,” he told THE CITY, referring to Jacobson’s previous, failed legal actions following her exit from the bench.
In the years following the hospital closure controversy, Jacobson, whom court administrators sometimes tapped to preside over estate matters in Surrogate Court, clashed with other politically connected attorneys.
According to her appeal, Jacobson had rejected court fee applications in cases sought by Martin Edelman and Steven Finkelstein — attorneys who were both on the judicial screening committee that would eventually find her “not qualified.”
The court exhibits included in the appeal do not include evidence for such rejections with regard to Edelman, who chaired the committee, but they do include several of Jacobson’s orders on Finkelstein’s compensation. In one order from 2015, for example, Jacobson knocked down Finkelstein’s fee from $47,397.64 to $32,000, following a review of his firm’s work.
Though the committee’s deliberations are secret, Jacobson believes that such decisions turned the two screening committee members against her. A 2012 version of the party’s screening committee rules held that any member of the committee who has a professional relationship with a candidate before the committee shall recuse himself or herself “from participating in the investigation of, deliberation and vote on the qualifications” of candidates, but Jacobson says both Edelman and Finkelstein attended her group interview. Jacobson recalls that Finkelstein did not ask her any questions but that Edelman, the committee’s longtime chair, directed the group interview.
Batra says he hopes his client will get more materials bolstering such claims through the court discovery process.
Edelman and Finkelstein did not respond to repeated requests for comment about Jacobson’s allegations in messages left with their law firms.
Over the last two decades, Brooklyn’s opaque judicial selection process has sparked criticism and controversy, factoring into the criminal conviction of a former Democratic party boss, a U.S. Supreme Court challenge, and near physical conflict among party executives on the eve of last year’s judicial convention.
Last year, after the chaotic judicial convention, the Brooklyn Democrats’ party boss Rodneyse Bichotte Hermelyn announced reforms to the selection process, creating an ad hoc committee of party executives who will vet judicial candidates.
But the original screening committee remains pivotal to the process because party executives will only consider endorsements for candidates who have been deemed qualified or recommended by the panel.
According to internal party documents obtained by THE CITY concerning the latest round of screening last month, Edelman remains the committee’s chair. Under his name was that of two partners at Abrams Fensterman, Carone’s longtime firm, which is representing the Brooklyn Democratic Party in the Jacobson case.
The law firm has until April 19 to respond to the appeal.