Chief administrative judge wants to cut back on active justices
By Charisma L. Miller, Esq.
Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Judges and interested attorneys gathered in the Brooklyn Bar Association’s auditorium on Tuesday evening for a three-hour program on how to become a member of the Brooklyn judiciary.
“Being a judge is very interesting,” noted the evening’s moderator, former Surrogate’s Court Judge Frank Seddio. “Judges are counted on to bring justice to the public.” According to Housing Court Judge Gary Marton, “Nothing is more important than solving disputes in a fair way … otherwise there will be anarchy.”
The evening began with a discussion by Andrew Fallek on the judicial screening process. Fallek, chair of the Brooklyn Bar Association’s Judiciary Committee, discussed the screening process as a whole, its misconceptions, and a few pitfalls.
“The screening committees simply screen to see if you are qualified. It is not a selection committee,” Fallek said in giving a brief overview of the screening committees’ role. The Brooklyn Bar Association and New York City Bar Association screening committees jointly screen candidates, but vote separately, for the judiciary candidates to deem them qualified or unqualified.
“It is not an overly burdensome process,” Fallek noted of the 12-page Uniform Judicial Questionnaire. Though the bar association screening process is not burdensome, Fallek reminded the audience that truthfulness is a key qualification requirement. “In two words: Don’t lie,” Fallek said, commenting on the breadth of the committees’ ability to ferret out lies.
Some judges are appointed by the Mayor’s Office. Advising on the appointment process for criminal court was Brooklyn Supreme Court, Criminal Term, Justice Suzanne Mondo. For this process “it is all about credentials,” Mondo noted.
Mondo, appointed in 1998 by Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and reappointed in 2009 by Mayor Michael Bloomberg, stressed the importance of public service and a “diversified professional background.” She spent time reading the career highlights of the newest criminal term justices, taking note of their experiences in the private and public sector.
“Add to your credentials,” Mondo advised. “Consider teaching a class or publishing an article. The committee is looking for attorneys that have distinguished themselves.”
Marton recommended potential candidates for Housing Court have knowledge of the legal issues and law litigated within that court. Maintaining a Housing Court practice is not, however, a prerequisite. Though he did not practice in Housing Court at the time he was considering a judgeship, Marton “acquired knowledge by reading … and memorizing the law.”
While some judges are appointed to the bench, others are elected. The election process takes more than filing out an application. It is “campaigning and engaging in political events,” cited Brooklyn Supreme Court Judge Sylvia Ash.
Explaining the two-pronged process for a Civil Court judge to move to Supreme Court, Ash detailed the need to reach out to Brooklyn’s district leaders to obtain the nomination by Brooklyn’s Democratic Party and ultimately getting elected by the people.
Sitting judges making the move to a higher court must be mindful of the judicial code that, with exceptions, prevents sitting judges from fundraising and engaging in political activity. They need to be mindful of their current employer, which is the Office of Court Administration, and campaign rules.
As parting advice, Ash warned “never put yourself higher at the expense of others” while seeking election.
Court attorney Lara Genovesi further detailed the election process. Genovesi unsuccessfully ran for a judgeship in 2012, an experience that “was emotionally draining” but one that she reflects on “fondly.” This process of seeking the support of district leaders and the public for elected judgeships is one that Seddio believes “brings back humility” to the judiciary as “sometimes judges forget where they came from.”
Seddio took a moment to discuss the role of acting Supreme Court justices. It is not uncommon for a lower-court Brooklyn judge to also serve as an acting justice in Brooklyn’s Supreme Court. The trend is commonplace in almost every county in New York. Chief Administrative Judge A. Gail Prudenti is now seeking to transform this practice, which cost the court system over $3 million in additional judicial pay last year.
Deputy Chief Administrative Judges Fern Fisher and Michael Coccoma and Office of Court Administration counsel John McConnell issued a report outlining challenges that the process for appointing acting justices pose, and proposals “to render that process more efficient, cost-effective, and fair.”
The chief administrative judge ultimately appoints acting justices after they are approved by the presiding justice of the appropriate department of the Appellate Division. In Brooklyn, for example, Presiding Justice Randall Eng would consult with Prudenti, and Prudenti would make the appointments. Acting justices are brought on to assist with the “substantial Supreme Court calendars” and the number of justices is steadily increasing, the report notes.
In 1998, 132 acting justice appointments were made from a field of 487 judicial candidates; that number rose to 325 acting justice appointments out of 494 candidates in 2012. The report blames inefficiencies in the assignment and appointment process for this increase.
Rounding out the Bar Association’s panel was Rachel Nash, an administrative law judge. Serving as an ALJ is a good way to gain the diverse career profile that Mondo referenced. According to Nash, an ALJ presides over an administrative hearing to resolve a dispute between a government agency and a person affected by a decision of that agency. The ability “to determine credibility” when a person appears pro se and without documented evidence was cited by Nash as a relevant trait judiciary trait.
Becoming a judge “is an arduous process,” noted Marton. It is “financially draining” said Genovesi, but a judgeship is “not just a profession but a vocation,” said Seddio. It is one where the “benefits are good,” noted Ash, and is a “prize that is worth it,” Marton fondly asserted.