An advocate for judicial independence, Bharara remains mum about Democrats' efforts to unseat independent judges

UPDATED : This isn't the first time that Assemblymember Keith Wright has reportedly interfered with the selection of judicial candidates.

By LOUIS FLORES

The office of U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, who has in the past championed independent judicial functions in Government, on Tuesday refused to comment about reported efforts by Manhattan Democratic County Committee officials to purge a veteran judge from the bench.

A judicial screening committee of the parent County committee denied to approve the reëlection of New York State Supreme Court Justice Doris Ling-Cohan. Judges must be approved by a judicial screening panel before they can appear on the electoral ballot. As reported by Progress Queens, the decision by the Manhattan judicial screening committee has raised questions about possible political motivations being behind the withdrawal of support for the Hon. Justice Ling-Cohan. For example, some of the rulings issued by the Hon. Justice Ling-Cohan include decisions that have been averse to the business of landlords and real estate developers.

The judicial screening is co-chaired by Curtis Arluck, who, in a report filed by the journalist Andy Humm for Gay City News, disavowed the decision by his own committee as "bizarre."

The parent County committee is chaired by New York State Assemblymember Keith Wright (D-Harlem), who, in the same Gay City News report, denied an accusation that he had a role in the decision to withdraw support from the Hon. Justice Ling-Cohan, claiming that there was a "firewall" between the political and judicial functions of the Manhattan Democratic Party County organization. However, a report published this year by The New York Post noted that Assemblymember Wright had been pressuring fellow Democrats to support a particular judicial candidate, Phaedra Perry, who is a law clerk for Assemblymember Wright's brother, the Hon. Justice Geoffrey Wright.

Tenants' rights advocate John Fisher, founder of the tenant resource Web site TenantNet, said that Assemblymember Wright was closely associated with the Real Estate Board of New York, a lobbying group of real estate interests. Mr. Fisher said that the withdrawal of support by the Manhattan judicial screening committee "would not be happening without" Assemblymember Wright's "acquiescence or specific direction."

In an interview with Progress Queens, Mr. Fisher described what he said were concerns that real estate interests would possibly have with the Hon. Justice Ling-Cohan's incumbency on the bench. Since the Hon. Justice Ling-Cohan had been promoted to the Appellate Term of the New York State Supreme Court, her independent rulings, if viewed as possibly being pro-tenant, would have greater impact. "To have a judge in that position is ostensibly dangerous to real estate interests," Mr. Fisher said, adding that, "She's also ripe for further promotion to the Appellate Division or to the Court of Appeals, depending on who is governor."

REBNY, as the lobbying group is known, had generally been able to wield great influence over legislation impacting landlords and the real estate development industry -- until recent wide-ranging corruption investigations in the State capital have caused the lobbying group and its members to cut back on the making of political contributions to public officials running for office. During the 2014 election cycle, members of REBNY were responsible for making approximately 10 per cent. of all campaign contributions, according to a report published by POLITICO New York.

Since the judicial record of the Hon. Justice Ling-Cohan has included rulings that have been decided in favor of tenants over landlords, some tenants' rights advocates have said that they believe that real estate interests may be behind the decision by Manhattan Democrats to withdraw support from the Hon. Justice Ling-Cohan. Given that real estate interests have lost some influence on legislative matters impacting the real estate industry, real estate interests may be attempting to make up for that loss of influence by exerting pressure on the make-up of the judiciary.

Almost all of the corruption investigations that have disrupted the undue influence by real estate interests on State legislation have been led by U.S. Attorney Bharara. His office declined to answer questions submitted in advance by Progress Queens about whether his office would probe any attempts by individuals to exert undue influence over the State judiciary.

Before he became the nation's top Federal prosecutor for New York's southern district, U.S. Attorney Bharara served as chief counsel to U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer (D-New York) when the U.S. Senate investigated allegations that the former Bush administration under then Attorney General Alberto Gonzales purged U.S. Attorneys based on political motivations, according to a recounting of events highlighted in a profile of U.S. Attorney Bharara published by The New Yorker. That investigation reportedly led to the ultimate resignation of then Attorney General Gonzales, it was observed in a report published by The New York Times about Mr. Bharara's nomination to the post of U.S. Attorney.

It is unknown if the actions to withdraw support from the Hon. Justice Ling-Cohan will lead Assemblymember Wright to step down as chair of the Manhattan Democratic County Committee. Representatives of the parent County committee did not answer requests for interviews made by Progress Queens over the week-end.

The press office for U.S. Attorney Robert Capers declined to comment about efforts by Brooklyn Democrats to remove an incumbent judge from the bench

Officials with the judicial screening committee of the Brooklyn Democratic County Committee have also recently decided to withdraw electoral support from veteran New York State Supreme Court Justice Laura Jacobson.

Questions have been raised about that parallel effort.

The Hon. Justice Jacobson gained particular prominence in the community after she made emergency rulings in 2013 and in 2014 to save the former Long Island College Hospital in litigation over the hospital's fate. Despite those rulings, the hospital closed and will now be converted into luxury condos by real estate interests, triggering a possible Federal investigation by the office of U.S. Attorney Bharara.

Some of the independent rulings made by the Hon. Justice Jacobson's have reportedly had an adverse impact on the business interests of officials with or connected to the Brooklyn Democratic County Committee. The Brooklyn judicial screening committee is chaired by Martin Edelman, and the parent County committee is chaired by Frank Seddio. Past leaders of the Brooklyn Democratic County Committee have included Meade Esposito, former Assemblymember Clarence Norman (D-Crown Heights) and the now late, former Assemblymember Vito Lopez (D-Bushwick).

It is not known whether U.S. Attorney Bharara's counterpart for New York's eastern district, U.S. Attorney Robert Capers, will probe whether Brooklyn officials, either on behalf of their campaign contributors or for their own self-interested reasons, may have withdrawn electoral support from a State judge in order to achieve political or financial ends.

A press official from the office of U.S. Attorney Capers declined to answer advance questions submitted by Progress Queens for this report.

Prior to assuming leadership over the U.S. Attorney's Office for New York's eastern district in 2015, U.S. Attorney Capers was senior litigation counsel for that office's Public Integrity Section, handling cases of political and campaign corruption.