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Psst! Do you want to be a judge? Many young lawyers consider at one time or another the idea of becoming a state court judge one day. The process can be fraught with pitfalls, and behind-the-scenes politics inevitably plays a major role. But people close to the process say that while it is difficult, it is certainly within reach of a diligent and experienced lawyer with no skeletons in the closet — and the rewards, while not necessarily monetary, are many. “Those who strive desperately to become judges are precisely those we don’t want as judges,” said Gerald Lebovits. Last week, Lebovits, 46, was inducted into the Civil Court of the City of New York as a judge in the Housing Part, which is often a first rung in the career ladder of the New York judiciary. Judge Lebovits, who began hearing cases last month in Staten Island and Brooklyn Housing Courts, said, “I conduct myself differently now, as if every split second of the day people are looking at me and I cannot commit the most minor indiscretion.” And getting there takes effort, he said. “The way it works is, you have to apply. So I applied. And I applied myself,” said Judge Lebovits, who was a criminal defense attorney for the Legal Aid Society in Manhattan from 1982 to 1986, and until last year was law clerk to Manhattan Supreme Court Justice Edward J. McLaughlin. “I made it my mission to know everything I could about landlord-tenant law. “Then come the interviews. They’re arduous,” said Judge Lebovits. “For some, they’re totally frustrating.” HURDLES ON WAY TO BENCH These are the requisite hurdles for appointment to the Housing Court bench: � Preliminary and full-panel interviews with the Housing Court Advisory Council, an agency of the Mayor’s office composed of tenant and landlord groups, mayoral appointees and neutrals. � Completion of the Uniform Judicial Questionnaire, a daunting 13-page confidential document issued by the Association of the Bar of the City of New York. � A written evaluation by a subcommittee of the City Bar’s Judiciary Committee, concentrating on such checklist questions as “demeanor, temperament and professionalism, intellectual ability, knowledge of the law and scholarship of written work, candor, integrity and impartiality … industriousness and promptness.” � Personal interviews with the City Bar judiciary subcommittee, followed by an interview with the full committee. � Reviews by the Inspector General of the New York Unified Court System, the deputy administrative judges, the deputy chief judge for management and support. � Then — finally — an interview with Chief Administrative Judge Jonathan Lippman. When and if a candidate wins a judgeship in Housing Court — Judge Lebovits was one of two candidates selected from 125 interviewed — he or she must then resubmit to the interview/review process in five years, when the term ends. The same drill holds for appointive candidates to the New York City Criminal and Civil Courts (10-year terms), and the 14-year elective terms of the State Supreme Court and Surrogate’s Court. And you thought applying for a mortgage loan was a Byzantine process. “I’d rather not talk about it,” said Judge Lieb, 41, a New York Civil Court judge since 1999, currently assigned to the Bronx County Criminal Court. “I had to account for every nickel. Which is a good thing. After all, this is a situation where the New York state court system picks its own judges. They don’t want surprises.” JUDGING THE JUDGES Perhaps the most important of those who judge the would-be judges is Jeh Charles Johnson, a litigation partner with Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison and chair of the City Bar judiciary committee. He described the City Bar group, which consists of 39 regular members and 10 interim members, as a diverse group of attorneys from big and small firms, academia, civil and criminal practitioners and public interest law. As a former member of the criminal defense bar and a longtime law clerk, Judge Lebovits hit a pair of Johnson’s own evaluation marks. “If I could send a message to young lawyers thinking about the judiciary,” said Johnson, “it would be this: I would hope to see more people from the criminal defense arena submit applications to the Mayor’s screening committee. We see a lot of former assistant district attorneys, but not enough from the defense realm. “Experience in the courtroom is what we look at first and foremost, and very often that means people who are sitting law clerks,” Johnson said of the judiciary committee. “Depending on how judges utilize their clerks, serving in that capacity can be a meaningful substitute for being a practicing attorney. Often, law clerks themselves play very active roles in dealing with counsel, with evidentiary issues, mediating settlements and running calendars. “The real guts emerge during these interviews,” said Johnson. “You’ll see a pattern emerging. If a [candidate] has a bad temperament, you’ll see it. Forty-nine attorneys can see a lot.” A new judge must “hit the beach running,” said Johnson, especially in venues such as Housing Court, with its many pro se litigants. “You don’t have lawyers there to teach you,” he said. BACKGROUND CHECK Needless to say, “Shadows in your background could be a problem,” said Manhattan Supreme Court Justice Joan B. Lobis, 54. “Nobody wants to be embarrassed by you as a candidate. If you’ve had any problems, say so. Because most likely they’ll show up.” And as any number of former office holders in the political world can attest, cover-ups are worse than original sins. “People give us pretty frank comments,” said Johnson, with reference to the pre-interview vetting process, conducted in strict confidence and mostly by telephone. “When you make a call about a judge, people return your call. “We see many [candidates and sitting judges] who have tripped and fallen in life,” he added. “I like to think that we’re able to take that in perspective.” Such perspective, among other things, is voiced in an annual seminar for prospective jurists offered by the City Bar’s Encourage Judicial Service committee, chaired by Justice Lobis. “For someone thinking about it, I would recommend getting arbitration experience, in small claims court for instance,” said Justice Lobis. “This gives the person a little taste of what it takes to be a judge.” Public service, Justice Lobis added, can be crucial for candidates during interviews with the major political parties, as well as the City Bar and the Mayor’s and Governor’s judicial review committees. “Activity in civic groups, be they political or not-for-profit, gives [interviewers] a way of knowing who you are,” said Justice Lobis, “and what kinds of concerns you will show on the bench.” Besides the annual City Bar seminar, a degree of formal tutelage for judges comes upon assuming the bench. “The state has a training program for us,” said Judge Lebovits. “The very experienced judges tell us what to expect, and what to watch out for. I was warned, ‘You’re going to gain weight since you’re basically in one place all day.’ “ Judge Lieb, who has spoken at one of the City Bar’s judicial seminars, said of her student days at the University of Michigan Law School, “I didn’t start out saying, I want to be a judge. That developed over time. Really what I wanted was public service.” After law school, Judge Lieb took a clerkship at the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, then spent three years in private practice at Johnson’s own firm, Paul Weiss. From 1991 until her appointment to the Bronx Criminal Court, she was an Assistant U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District. “I was in court very, very frequently. I was exposed to tremendous judges who were inspiring,” said Judge Lieb. “I was litigating, I was getting trial experience, I was getting to know the judges and they got to know me.” While Judge Lieb’s route to the bench seems a “natural” one, she acknowledged, everyone interviewed for this article said there is no one surefire path to wearing the robes, and certainly no campus instruction. “It would be presumptuous to have a course in how to be a judge,” said Jacquelyn J. Burt, assistant dean for the Center for Professional Development at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law. “That would be like having a course on how to be the president. You either have the goods, or you don’t.” “But there are certain things a judge needs — excellent research and writing skills,” said Dean Burt. “And what about political implications? There are some students who are shocked to find out that not all judges are appointed.” Justice Lobis, 54, began her career on the bench just as Judge Lebovits did, with an appointment to the Housing Part in New York Civil Court. Long in elective office now, her success came of distinctly political means. “I was asked by a group of people to consider the appointment as a qualified openly gay or lesbian attorney,” said Justice Lobis, who at the time supervised a legal services program for District Council 37, the labor organization. “This was back in 1985, around the time when there was a lot of political activity to pass anti-discrimination laws in city hiring.” In 1988, Justice Lobis sought support of Democratic party officials and won election to the state Supreme Court post she has held ever since. Judge Lebovits was likewise helped by what he called “lower-case” politics, as opposed to “capital P” partisan politics. “I attended bar association functions, I chaired a couple of committees,” he said. “If I did an OK job, that obviously helped. I did meet people who could be helpful. The people who review your applications are some of the same ones who decide to move you along.” UNCONVENTIONAL PATH Certainly the most unconventional path to the bench — so far unsuccessful — has been trod by Michael V. Ajello, 60, a real estate attorney with the Brooklyn firm Ajello & Ajello. Despite having neither trial experience nor the all-important “approved” rating by the City Bar, Ajello campaigned for a seat on the State Supreme Court 10 times, mostly on the Conservative Party line, occasionally accompanied by a Republican Party nod. “In order to be acceptable, you should be in the system. You should have the experience to perform the [judicial] functions,” said Ajello. “So what I did starting in July of ’98 was, I became a pro bono Assistant District Attorney in Kings County. “I went through the system that every A.D.A. gets — working arraignments, search warrant preparations, presenting cases before a grand jury,” he said. “On the civil end, I reached out to 10 different attorneys I would call every Friday to see what they had going on. I would schlep to court with them, get involved with assignments and picking juries. “Then in September of ’98, I became a pro bono arbitrator for Small Claims Court in Staten Island.” And this year, said Johnson, the City Bar’s judiciary committee issued an “approved” rating to Ajello, who intends to run for an 11th time. “I don’t think of myself as being overly intelligent,” said Ajello. “I’m a plodder and persistent in what I do. “I think I’d be a good judge because I’m a decent person and not a loudmouth and I don’t take advantage of people.” Related item: Uniform Judicial Questionnaire

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