Questions about why Manhattan, Brooklyn party committees have withdrawn support from judges

Manhattan Judicial Committee withdraws support from Judge Doris Ling-Cohan, who wrote a landmark ruling on marriage equality

By LOUIS FLORES

The judicial selection committee for the Manhattan Democratic County Committee has turned its back on a long-term sitting judge in a move seen to have political overtones.

Doris Ling-Cohan, a New York State Supreme Court justice, who sits on the Court's appellate section, lost the support of the judicial selection committee of the Manhattan Democratic County machine. Without such support, the Hon. Justice Ling-Cohan will be unable to run for another term in office. New York State Supreme Court justices must be elected to office.

The Hon. Justice Ling-Cohan did not respond to a request made by Progress Queens for comment for this report.

The Hon. Justice Ling-Cohan earned widespread praise for her judicial independence when, in 2005, she issued a ruling, finding that legal barriers that prevented same sex couples from getting married violated the State constitution's guarantees of equal protection and due process, according to a report published at that time then by The New York Times. That ruling, though successfully appealed, was later validated by the U.S. Supreme Court rulings in other marriage equality cases.

A growing chorus of advocates for government reform, some from within New York's LGBT community, have expressed concern that the withdrawal of support by the Manhattan Democratic County Committee was short-sighted.

Allen Roskoff, a resident of Chelsea and a veteran activist for LGBT equality in New York, issued a statement on behalf of the Jim Owles Liberal Democratic Club, noting the Hon. Justice Ling-Cohan's judicial accomplishments, saying, in part, " Her historic decision in 2005 ordering New York City to provide marriage licenses to gay couples was outrageously challenged successfully by Mayor [Michael] Bloomberg and Attorney General [Eliot] Spitzer, but her sound constitutional reasoning was validated by the United States Supreme Court’s 2011 Windsor decision and 2013 Obergefell decision ending bans on same-sex marriage nationwide. In her twenty years on the bench she has developed a well-deserved reputation for fairness and meticulously written decisions. We cannot afford to lose her. "

Another of New York's key LGBT civil rights activists also defended the record of the Hon. Justice Ling-Cohan.

"Doris Ling-Cohan is one of our most distinguished judges; if Democratic Party machine politics are behind the decision of the selection panel refusing to recommend her re-election to the state Supreme Court, then it is a sad commentary on the overwhelming and thoroughly illegitimate power of party bosses in the judicial selection process here in New York," said Pauline Park, chair of the New York Association for Gender Rights Advocacy (NYAGRA), adding, "Doris Ling-Cohan is one of the few Asian American judges on the court, and her historic ruling ordering the City of New York to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples shows how committed she is to equality under the law and justice for all New Yorkers; it is disgraceful that Democratic Party bosses would seek to remove her from the bench for purely self-interested reasons."

The Hon. Justice Ling-Cohan has also received support from New York's Asian communities. “Justice Ling-Cohan is a pillar in our community and a role model to generations of young lawyers," said Asian American Bar Association of New York President Susan Shin, in a statement, adding that, "While we respect the Manhattan Democratic Party’s panel process, we urge the party’s Judiciary Committee to adopt a procedure to afford Justice Ling-Cohan the opportunity to seek reconsideration of this most unusual outcome.” Another legal group, the Korean American Lawyers Association of Greater New York, has issued a statement in support of the Hon. Justice Ling-Cohan.

According to information received by Progress Queens from an anonymous source, a member of the Manhattan judicial selection committee is reportedly supporting a particular candidate instead of the Hon. Justice Ling-Cohan, which represents a conflict of interest. Additional information indicated that the Hon. Justice Ling-Cohan was not personally informed of the decision by the Manhattan judicial selection committee ; instead, she was said to have learned about the decision in the press. Other information obtained by Progress Queens indicated that the Manhattan judicial selection committee denied a request to appeal its decision.

New York State Assemblymember Keith Wright (D-Harlem), seated at left, with left-to right : Former Speaker Sheldon Silver (D-Lower East Side), Assemblymember Catherine Nolan (D-Woodside), and former Assemblymember Darryl Towns (D-East New York) in an undated photograph.  Since this photograph was taken, former Assemblymember Silver has been convicted of Federal corruption charges, and former Assemblymember Towns was appointed CEO of the New York State Homes and Community Renewal.  Source :  New York State Assembly/Public Domain

New York State Assemblymember Keith Wright (D-Harlem), seated at left, with left-to right : Former Speaker Sheldon Silver (D-Lower East Side), Assemblymember Catherine Nolan (D-Woodside), and former Assemblymember Darryl Towns (D-East New York) in an undated photograph.  Since this photograph was taken, former Assemblymember Silver has been convicted of Federal corruption charges, and former Assemblymember Towns was appointed CEO of the New York State Homes and Community Renewal.  Source :  New York State Assembly/Public Domain

Attempts to reach a representative of the Manhattan Democratic County Committee for comment were unsuccessful. New York State Assemblymember Keith Wright (D-Harlem) chairs the Manhattan Democratic County Committee.

It is not known what express motivation Assemblymember Wright or the Manhattan Democratic County Commitee have to withdraw support from the Hon. Justice Ling-Cohan, except that a scurrilous article published by The New York Post questioned her work ethic, a charge that a prominent Landlord-Tenant attorney denied.

In an interview with Progress Queens, Matthew Chachère, a New York lawyer, spoke in defense of the Hon. Justice Ling-Cohan's judicial record, citing her accomplished record of judicial rulings over 20 years on the bench.

"This is a political hack job being done on a judge, whose jurisprudence has often rubbed powerful interests the wrong way," Mr. Chachère said.

In 2004, the Hon. Justice Ling-Cohan dealt a temporary setback to Donald Trump when she ruled against the closure of the northbound exit ramp from the West Side Highway at 72nd Street. Mr. Trump had sought the closure in order to allow the construction of a new roadway for Trump Place, a multiple-building development on Manhattan's Upper West Side. The project also involved a powerful player in New York's real estate circles, Extell Development Company.

Besides her landmark ruling on same sex marriage, the Hon. Justice Ling-Cohan has garnered the praise of the legal profession. In 2015, she was included in a list of Outstanding Women Lawyers by The National Law Journal.

She has also earned admiration from New York City's community tenants' rights advocates. In 1999, the Hon. Justice Ling-Cohan ruled against a landlord, Jacob Haberman, who was trying to evict his tenant, Mark Gotbaum, an artist, according to a report published at that time then by The New York Times. In 2015, the Hon. Justice Ling-Cohan reprimanded the New York City Housing Authority for its efforts to evict a tenant for nonpayment of $581, according to a report published at that time then by The New York Daily News.

The Hon. Justice Ling-Cohan also garnered praise from advocates for the rights of domestic violence victims and from advocates for greater police accountability. In one case, the Hon. Justice Ling-Cohan ordered a state agency to reinstate an employee, who had been dismissed for "chronic absences" from her job, even though the employee had complained about domestic violence, according to a 2015 report published by The New York Law Journal. In another case, the Hon. Justice Ling-Cohan ruled that the New York City Police Department needed to disclose information about its use of X-ray vans, a ruling that was later amended in a split decision made by an appeals court, according to a report published by the online news Web site Pro Publica.

In a 2005 report published by The New York Daily News about the Hon. Justice Ling-Cohan's marriage equality ruling, her husband, Marc Cohan said about his wife, "She's always taken the public service aspect of her life very seriously."

Given the Hon. Justice Ling-Cohan's sensibility to show justice to tenants, some saw the withdrawal of support by the Manhattan Democratic County Committee as possible retaliation for her rulings on landlord-tenant cases.

Mr. Roskoff, the LGBT civil rights activist added that, "Justice Ling-Cohan’s unprecedented rejection by this panel was tainted with politics and conflicts of interest. The panel was stacked with lawyers from the real estate and corporate sectors who were determined to remove her from the bench because of her fairness to tenants and consumers. In the past, Manhattan had a well-deserved reputation for judicial review panels drawn from the community and representing the interests of average residents who need to count on the independence of the judiciary when they seek justice. Now the panels, while still diverse racially and sexually, are rigged to make sure that the moneyed interests in the city can own the courts the way they own many politicians. It is a disgrace."

Mr. Chachère, the tenant attorney, also noted with irony the Manhattan judicial committee treatment of the Hon. Justice Ling-Cohan. Mr. Chachère said that the hallmark of the system that is used to select New York State Supreme Court justices is supposed to allow judges to remain independent, yet, Mr. Chachère said, the Hon. Justice Ling-Cohan appears to be being attacked precisely because of her independence. Mr. Chachère mentioned that his wife, Margarita López Torres, was a plaintiff in case that was argued all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court with assistance from the Brennan Center for Justice to open up the process that is used to select justices for the New York State Supreme Court. Although that litigation reform effort failed, the work by Ms. López Torres and others pointed to the long-term commitment that reformers have demonstrated to ensure judicial independence from politics.*

Because the process followed by the Manhattan judicial committee has legally remained confidential, a process that the Manhattan Democratic County Committee has vigorously defended, Mr. Chachère questioned how the Manhattan judicial committee nevertheless allowed information about its decision to withdraw support from the Hon. Justice Ling-Cohan to be published by The New York Post.

Since the judicial convention that will finalize the names for justices being accepted onto the ballot will take place three weeks from now, Mr. Chachère expressed disbelief that the Manhattan judicial committee was forcing the Hon. Justice Ling-Cohan to campaign for office.

Democrats in Downtown Manhattan have for decades exerted pressure to reform the selection of justices for the ballot. In the 1970's, some leaders for reform of the judicial selection process emerged from a Downtown political club, the Village Independent Democrats, according to "City For Sale," a 1988 muckraking book by Jack Newfield and Wayne Barrett. As noted in "City for Sale," elected officials have attempted to influence political clubs, particularly reform political clubs, in times leading up to elections when endorsements are decided. However, only the most independent of political clubs have managed to rebuff official attempts at undue influence.

Brooklyn Judicial Committee has withdrawn support from Judge Laura Jacobson, who has challenged allies of the Brooklyn Democratic County boss

In Brooklyn, another New York State Supreme Court judge has lost the support of the counterpart judicial selection committee.

The Hon. Justice Laura Jacobson faces the prospect of losing her judgeship, because the judicial selection committee of the Brooklyn Democratic County Committee withdrew it support from her reëlection. 

From the bench, the Hon. Justice Jacobson has issued court rulings that attempted to save Long Island College Hospital from closure and sale. The Hon. Justice Jacobson has also issued rulings that have found that the fees charged by the Kings County Public Administrator, which serves as fiduciary for the deceased without wills, have been excessive, according to a report published by The New York Law Journal. These judicial acts have respectively ruled against Frank Carone and Steven Finklestein, attorneys who are members or supporters of the Brooklyn Democratic County Committee. The Brooklyn Democratic County Committee is chaired by Frank Seddio.

As with the Hon. Justice Ling-Cohan, reports published by The New York Post have cast aspersions on the character of the Hon. Justice Jacobson, revealing alleged details of the judicial process that should have legally remained confidential.

In the time since the Brooklyn judicial selection committee made its determination to withdraw support from the Hon. Justice Jacobson, she retained in her personal capacity the civic attorney Ravi Batra and filed a Federal lawsuit against the Brooklyn Democratic County Committee and others, claiming that the withdrawal of support represented retaliation for the judicial independence she has exhibited, according to a report published by The New York Daily News.

In a statement issued to Progress Queens, Mr. Batra wrote that the Hon. Justice Jacobson has remained autonomous, noting that the Brooklyn screening selection committee had already approved her judgeship in the past. Mr. Batra also described the Hon. Justice Jacobson as "a great and fearless judge, a woman, who dared to honor her Oath," adding that, "What is truly most troubling is the unconstitutional attempt to control the court and make a judge into a political puppet by destroying judicial independence -- and it is judicial independence that make our cherished separation of powers to function."

As with the Hon. Justice Ling-Cohan, the Hon. Justice Jacobson does not lack support from the community. In respect of political clubs, Mr. Batra noted that the Hon. Justice Jacobson was being supported by the Central Brooklyn Independent Democrats and the Lambda Independent Democrats of Brooklyn.

* UPDATE :  This section was clarified to note that Margarita López Torres was one plaintiff in the lawsuit that was argued all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

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