In Brooklyn, fixing a 'corrupt' court system

Series of judicial-bribery scandals may lead to changes in way judges are selected.

The tale starts last October: A Brooklyn mother, afraid she'd lost a custody battle, was approached by a man in a municipal building and told that with a little cash, the judge could be persuaded to see things her way.

Flash to a hidden camera in the judge's chambers - and a lawyer allegedly giving that judge some money and a box of Dominican cigars.

In April, Judge Gerald Garson was arrested on charges of accepting "money and gifts in exchange for giving preferential treatment" to him. This week, the Kings County district attorney, Charles Hynes, brought a new bribery charge against Judge Garson. He says more indictments are coming.

Thus begins the most recent bribery scandal in the Brooklyn courts, one that's prompted a full investigation into judicial corruption and into the borough's Democratic machine. Ultimately, it's expected to overhaul judicial selection in New York, and perhaps provide a model for reform nationwide.

"This is a typical situation where scandal creates the opportunity for what might turn out to be a major change," says Prof. Roy Schotland at the Georgetown University Law Center.

Watchdog groups consider Brooklyn one of America's most corrupt judicial systems. In this most heavily Democratic borough of New York, party control is extreme: Voters choose delegates to a nominating convention who then pick judges; the powerful Democratic machine usually controls the delegates. That, critics say, gives the party almost virtual control over judge selection.

In the parochial maze of Brooklyn politics, the buzz here has been that Democrats reward loyal service and big contributions - qualifications or not.

But partisan election of state judges across the country is increasingly raising alarms about political influence.

More than half of state civil-court judges and 3 of every 4 trial judges are elected in partisan battles. The lawyers and businessmen who donate cash to get judges on the bench may later appear before them in court. And judicial reformers say that can lead trouble.

"It limits the independence of judges and injects politics, cash, and partisanship into the judicial system," says Ken Jockers, executive director of the Committee for Modern Courts, the largest New York citizens' group bent on reforming the justice system.

In some states - Illinois, Ohio, Michigan, Texas, Alabama, and Missouri - a vast spending increase in local judicial races, by special-interest groups from abortion foes to the NRA, is fueling calls to reform judge selection.

"No state is safe," says Bert Brandenburg of Justice at Stake, a nonpartisan, nonprofit that's working to keep courts fair and impartial, based in Washington. "Because if an interest group decides to win the bench, all they have to do is write a check and that state's politics are going to change."

In Brooklyn, the DA's office now has 10 lawyers, six financial investigators, and more than a dozen detectives investigating, among other things, whether judgeships are up for sale. And the grand jury that brought the Garson indictments has found that voters in 12 New York judicial districts are disenfranchised, having no direct vote for their Supreme Court judges.

"If all we had at the end of this was the Grand Jury report that said that, then I think there'd be a wave of support for change," says Mr. Hynes, Kings County district attorney. "But that's not all we're going to have. I can now say with confidence, based on the weeks of investigation, there will be more indictments."

In Judge Garson's case, his lawyer Ronald Fischetti contends there is "no merit whatsoever" to the charges, His client was merely befriending the lawyer, he says, and taking him "under his wing."

"What he did might be considered improper, but it's not a crime," says Mr. Fischetti.

Reformers point out that Judge Garson was also treasurer of the Brooklyn Democratic party, and contend that Garson's dual responsibilities illustrate the problems created when politics and the judiciary mix.

"This happens to be an extreme example that points out the general, systematic problem ... across the US," says Mr. Jockers.

Many reformers favor doing away with elections entirely, creating in their place state systems that are similar to the federal one, in which judges are appointed and then approved in a legislative body. But that change requires a constitutional amendment - a cumbersome process. And comprehensive change comes slowly.

Several states, including North Carolina and Arkansas, have made judicial elections nonpartisan. One proposal in New York favors publicly financed elections. "By and large the public has been willing to support making the elections nonpartisan, but not doing away with elections all together," says David Rottman of the National Center for State Courts in Williamsburg, Va.

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