By Thomas Tracy
Even though a judge has already shot down the convention system traditionally used to pick judges, leaving everyone at square one, officials from the Kings County Democratic Party are going ahead with their plans to streamline their selection committee. One large part of this process – a public hearing where a Blue Ribbon Advisory Panel headed by St. Francis College Frank Macchiarola and Assemblymember Joe Lentol will be receiving input from the public at large — has been set for this Thursday, February 22. The hearing will take place at St. Francis College Founders Hall, 180 Remsen Street, between 4 and 8 p.m. Claiming that judgeships had been bought, sold and traded in the borough, reformers have long demanded that the current judicial screening process, which was led by then Kings County Party Boss Clarence Norman, should be torn down and rebuilt. Reformers applauded a recent decision by Judge John Gleeson, who last month barred the state Board of Elections from continuing with the current party selection system. If the injunction beats an appeal and a new process is not ratified, the next batch of Supreme Court judicial candidates will be selected through a primary. Before last month’s decision, Supreme Court candidates in Brooklyn were selected by a screening panel, usually headed by a party boss. Once the screening panel approves a list of candidates, those names are put on the ballot and ultimately elected. Challengers to the convention system said that the process is wide open to corruption, as well as takes the power away from the people, who have no choice but to rubberstamp the candidates that the political party has already selected. In his 77-page decision, Judge Gleeson agreed, stating, “Local major party leaders — not the voters or the delegates to the judicial nominating conventions — control who becomes a Supreme Court justice and when.” “The highly unusual process by which that extremely important office is filled perpetuates that control, and deprives the voters of any meaningful role,” he wrote. But, Assemblyman Vito Lopez, the chair of the Kings County Democratic Party, said that the primary system reformers embraced is also wrought with danger. “The Gleeson decision would demand primaries and that would mean that someone wanting to run for the Supreme Court would have to probably raise between $500,000 and $700,000,” said Lopez. “That would eliminate a large number of candidates.” “That’s the major flaw,” he said. “A primary system would automatically eliminate certain qualified candidates, while candidates who have several million dollars and are willing to spend it could get a judgeship.” If elected, judicial candidates would also be beholden, at least slightly, to his or her backers in the primary as well, Lopez noted. During the hearing Blue Ribbon Panel, whose main goal was to make the judicial selection process more open and inclusive, will be seeking input on a number of issues, including if the screening panel should include non-lawyers, how long should a person remain on the screening panel, as well as the most important qualifications and requirements needed to ensure competent members of the judiciary. An appeals process, where candidates not selected by the candidate can bring their case to a higher panel, is also being considered. The seven member panel, which includes civil rights attorney Gerald Lefcourt, Howard Glickstein, former dean of Touro law school, Dr. Pamela Straker, president and CEO of Brooklyn Psychiatric Centers and Carl J. Landicino, Counsel to the Kings County Democratic Committee has already met a handful of times, said Lopez. “It’s quite a bold move to open up the panel,” said Lopez, who added that he “has not really gotten involved in their meetings.” “They’re the ones having a dialogue, I’m just looking forward to hearing from them,” he said. Lopez said that, following the public hearings, the panel will come up with a recommendation that would be forwarded to the chair. Lopez would then bring the recommendations to the executive board for a vote.