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Three Democratic Party county leaders participating on Dec. 7 in a program on “How to Become a Judge” may have stated the obvious, yet the thought they articulated is rarely spoken out loud, at least not so explicitly. The three leaders, along with five other panelists, told about 80 lawyers attending a session at the Association of the Bar of the City of New York that political involvement is key to winning an elective judgeship. Boiled down to its essentials, the panelists’ message was join a political club, become known to political party leaders, develop mentors, and make yourself indispensable. Staten Island Assemblyman John W. Lavelle, the chairman of the Richmond County Democratic Party, encouraged lawyers to volunteer to help his organization deal with the arcana of election law. The work of volunteers is “appreciated,” and party leaders are “very, very aware” of the contributions volunteer lawyers make, he said. At another point during the session, after a question arose about some district attorney’s offices having a policy prohibiting their prosecutors from joining political clubs, Lavelle interjected that if a prosecutor’s wife were an active club member, there would be “credit in that context.” The session on how to negotiate the political process necessary to obtain an elective judgeship was one of six panel discussions during the day-long program. All together, 240 lawyers who are at least entertaining the thought of seeking a judgeship attended the program. Among the speakers were Chief Judge Judith S. Kaye, who delivered the keynote address, and New York City Deputy Mayor Carol Robles-Roman, whose remarks on the Mayor’s Advisory Committee on the Judiciary opened the day’s proceeding. Joining Lavelle on the panel were Queens Democratic leader and former U.S. Congressman Thomas J. Manton, and state Assemblyman Clarence Norman Jr., the leader of the Brooklyn Democratic Party. Manton reinforced the message that becoming politically active can help advance a lawyer’s path to a judgeship by telling an anecdote about a law secretary who had gotten heavily involved as a volunteer in the former congressman’s 1992 campaign. Manton said that during the campaign, which was particularly difficult because it followed the 1990 re-apportionment, he had gotten to know the law secretary well and admire his talents. The result, he said, was to “jump start” the young man’s path to the judiciary. Norman, who followed a panelist who stressed the importance of “getting to know the lay of the land” through political clubhouses, also acknowledged the importance of aspirants putting themselves “in a position to be judged.” Norman, however, lashed out at his critics, particularly the Daily News, which in a series of editorials has contended that the elective system has produced mediocre judges, and worse, in Brooklyn. He insisted that his party has a screening process that insures as a “prerequisite” that any candidate its leaders back is qualified. Norman said the message of the Daily News‘ “crusade” that appointed judges are better than elected ones could not “be further from the truth.” To pose the question as “merit” selection versus elections is “pejorative,” he charged. Kent Frydman, a spokesman for the Daily News, said the paper would let the editorials “speak for” themselves. A FALSE DICHOTOMY? One theme that surfaced during the program in a less-overheated fashion was the debate over which method of selecting judges is better, appointive or elective. Acting Justice Leslie G. Leach, the head of bar association’s committee to encourage judicial service, noted at the opening plenary session that some refer to one system as “political and the other as merit.” But, he added, both involve “politics” and “merit.” Comments made by two panelists — one talking about the elective process and the other about the appointive process — suggest that politics, with a small “p,” plays a role in both. Justice Joseph F. Bruno, who participated in the panel with the Democratic leaders, stressed the importance that knowing the party’s 40 district leaders had in his quest for a supreme court judgeship in Brooklyn. Holding up a copy of the list, Bruno said he had “worked the field” so that the district leaders “got a sense of who I am.” Criminal Court Judge Michael Sondberg, speaking at a session on how to negotiate the appointive process, similarly described the list of the members of the mayor’s advisory committee, which screens applicants for the Family and Criminal Courts, as “the most important” information in a booklet distributed by the city Bar at the program. Sondberg suggested that applicants search the list to see if they knew anyone with a personal relationship with any of the committee members. He also suggested as potentially helpful sending a discreet feeler to determine if a discussion about the applicant would be welcome. Zachary Carter, the chairman of the Mayor’s advisory committee, also noted the benefit of bar association committee work as a means of gaining “exposure to other well-regarded practitioners.” A lawyer could be a great litigator, he explained, but like “a tree falling in a forest,” no one may recognize it. At the plenary session on the appointive process, it became apparent that candidates applying to the bench for an appointive judgeship are subject to rigorous scrutiny. Jeh C. Johnson, the chairman of the bar association’s Judiciary Committee, said that the committee regularly conducts between 20 and 40 interviews with people familiar with a candidate’s work in deciding whether to give the candidacy its endorsement. Sources familiar with the work of the mayor’s advisory committee said that panel conducts a similar number of inquiries in evaluating candidates’ credentials.

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