Justice Doris Ling-Cohan, a distinguished 20-year veteran of the State Supreme Court bench and a hero to the LGBT community for her historic 2005 ruling in favor of same-sex marriage, was put through the ringer in recent weeks by a deeply flawed process of the New York County Democratic Party for nominating judges and anonymous leaks to the New York Post smearing her – either from inside the so-called independent screening panel that narrowly rejected her or from Democratic leaders backing other judicial candidates.
The ensuing uproar from community and legal groups supporting Ling-Cohan led the county party’s executive committee, made up of local Democratic district leaders, to meet in closed session on September 9 to deal with the crisis. County leader Keith Wright, a veteran state assemblymember, would not address the press after the meeting, but district leader Marc Landis said his fellow district leaders were “surprised” by the panel rejection and that while they, as leaders, may not nominate panel-rejected candidates at the September 22 judicial convention to select Democratic nominees for the November ballot, Ling-Cohan can be nominated by a delegate who is not a district leader, in line with standard party protocol.
Curtis Arluck, the co-chair of the party’s Judiciary Committee, predicted she will be selected as one of the party’s nominees.
The panelists — mostly lawyers who volunteer from bar associations and civic groups, with a few lay participants — were, according to sources with direct knowledge, swayed by an aggressive real estate attorney, panelist Deborah Riegel, who attacked Ling-Cohan for the judge’s handling of temporary restraining orders in landlord-tenant disputes, in which she insists that lawyers put their motions and answers in writing rather than taking them orally as most judges do. Many of the panelists were new to the process and, according to those sources, did not seem to understand their role, especially in evaluating judges up for reelection. The meeting process was decried as “chaotic.”
“Imagine the movie ‘Twelve Angry Men’ ended after 10 minutes,” said one panelist, Niall Macgiollabhui of the Brehon Law Society, a legal society for attorneys of Irish ancestry. “That was the voting process.”
No sitting judge without written complaints and disciplinary actions against them has ever been denied renomination — and Ling-Cohan had no such complaints against her.
Whoever had it in for Ling-Cohan knew this. At least one anonymous adversary told the Post that she was rejected because she had a reputation “as one of the worst judges — non-productive, lazy, not hard-working, disorganized, takes a lot of time off, late with decisions” — all demonstrably untrue for anyone doing even a cursory check of the public record, as Post reporters clearly did not for their August 31 story, which took these unfounded assertions at face value. Ling-Cohan has been elevated to the Appellate Term for her diligence and reputation, and data from the Office of Court Administration show that the timeliness of her work “in resolving cases and motions has been well above average among her colleagues,” according to a compilation released by City Councilmember Rosie Mendez, a Ling-Cohan supporter. That data also showed that she “took just 30 vacation days in total over the past six years.”
A source within the panel said the slurs printed in the Post about Ling-Cohan being “lazy” were never voiced by anyone on the panel during its proceedings either in the presence of the judge or during their deliberations.
Despite the scurrilous smears published regarding Ling-Cohan, most all panelists allowed the story to stand – hiding behind the supposed confidentiality of the panel even though it had been violated. That allowed Ling-Cohan to twist in the wind for a week until Mendez and Councilmember Margaret Chin organized 100 supporters from a wide variety of groups to defend Ling-Cohan at City Hall on September 6 and demand that the party renominate her.
Fifteen of the panelists signed on to a September 11 letter to Arluck and Louise Dankberg, co-chairs of the county party’s judiciary committee, asking for the opportunity to reconsider their rejection of Ling-Cohan.
“The individual reasons that we believe reconsideration is warranted might be different from person to person but we are in agreement that the Committee should have the opportunity to review Her Honor’s application and record anew,” the letter read. “We also wish to clarify that the words ‘lazy’ and ‘slow’ reported in various New York Post articles were not words we heard used by the Panel in connection with Justice Ling-Cohan.”
The county party, led by Wright, instead of expressing outrage over the leaks and the evident flawed process, insisted it could not overturn the results of the independent panel — even one that wanted to revisit its own decision. Instead, a convention delegate other than someone on the executive committee will nominate Ling-Cohan, and party officials – Arluck and others – anticipate that will ensure her spot on the November ballot, along with other Court incumbents Rolando T. Acosta, Troy K. Webber, and out lesbian Rosalyn Richter. (Richter has been an associate justice of the Appellate Division since 2009.) Six vacancies will be filled from among Ling-Cohan, the 13 people approved by this panel, and holdovers from past panels who did not need to be re-approved in order to be considered again.
Some delegate candidates have already declared themselves for Ling-Cohan, and those that go against their leaders on her nomination risk becoming pariahs within their clubs and the party.
Ling-Cohan is taking nothing for granted. In an email to her supporters she wrote, “There are no guarantees, still need to get the delegate votes on 9/ 22. There is a lot of work to be done!”
She is especially concerned about the damage to her reputation by the initial vote of disapproval and the effect of what she termed the “defamatory statements” in the initial Post articles, “which were all translated word for word in Chinese press causing me even more problems.”
Convention delegates were elected in this week’s Democratic primary. But when the convention is held on September 22 at Harlem Hospital, it will doubtless follow the customary practice of district leaders who head the delegations deciding behind the scenes who will be selected and the other candidates going to the microphone to drop out, understanding that it is not “their turn” – in a show of not making waves. (It is, of course, possible for a candidate to run against the wishes of the leaders.) The entire group of candidates, successful and otherwise, plus anyone else who wants to be a judge, are then pretty much compelled to attend the numerous fundraising dinners and Democratic club functions throughout the borough — making them one of the main sources of revenue for the party organization and its clubs — if they want to be considered for endorsement by the clubs and selection at the next convention.
The other parties with guaranteed ballot status in New York, by virtue of having received at least 50,000 votes in the last gubernatorial election — a group that currently includes the Republican, Conservative, Green, Working Families, Independence, Women’s Equality, and Reform Parties — virtually never put up candidates for judgeships in Manhattan so voters will likely be facing another Soviet-style ballot in these non-contests in November.
The alternative to electing judges through this political process is “merit” selection of judges by the mayor and governor — often after being approved by bar association panels. There is no perfect, completely unbiased system. But the current “independent panel” process used by New York County has led to lawyers — whether from the corporate, landlord, tenant, or civil rights bars — to volunteer to pick the judges they will appear before. They can be judicious and pick people based on their competence and fitness as the rules say or they can be self-interested and skew their selections toward judges they believe will be biased in their favor.