New York Post, February 6, 2000
By Jack Newfield
DEAR Inspector General Sherrill Spatz:
Congratulations on your appointment as judicial patronage investigator for the state's chief judge. Your former colleague in the Manhattan DA's office, Attorney General Eliot Spitzer, is sure you will do a great job.
Since I've been writing exposes on judicial patronage for 30 years, allow me to share my knowledge and suggest a few improvements to a system that is now more loophole than law.
The basic problem is that political organizations pick judges based on party loy-alty rather than merit. The same judges make lucrative appointments to the drones who picked them.
The courts are so politicized that almost nothing is decided purely on the merits. This deprives the public of protection and robs the judiciary of public trust.
Just look at the public record.
The law firm of Queens Democratic Party leader Tom Manton has received more than $400,000 in court patronage since 1997. One partner -- Frank Bolz -- heads the party's law committee. Another, Gerard Sweeney, is counsel to the public adminis-trator. A third, Mike Reich, is executive secretary of the Queens party organiza-tion. They should apply antitrust laws to Manton's Monopoly.
Ravi Batra is the law partner of Brooklyn Democratic Party boss Clarence Norman. Batra has gotten more than 125 court appointments since 1995, the year he became Norman's partner.
Perhaps the first thing you should do is take a good look at the activities of Steve Cohn, a judge's son who is a Democratic Party district leader and a judge-maker in Brooklyn. His influence may be legal, but it is also disturbing.
More than one lawyer has told me he felt it necessary to hire Cohn as "co-counsel" to have a chance at equal treatment for clients in civil cases in Brooklyn. One Manhattan lawyer told me he paid Cohn $17,000 in one case and $5,000 in another.
"I was losing both cases unfairly before I hired Cohn," he said. "As soon as I hired him, the judges began to decide motions in my favor."
The lawyer said Cohn did virtually no legal work -- he just showed up, nodded to the judge and chattered with his law secretary, whom he seemed to know very well.
This lawyer told me, "I'm ashamed of what I had to do ... But I have to do what I can to protect my clients."
Here are a few simple suggestions on how the system can be reformed to reduce fa-voritism, cronyism, nepotism and cynicism:
Create a list of lawyers based on merit -- lawyers with the qualifications to serve as honest receivers, guardians, referees and court evaluators.
Require judges to make all assignments from this list, at random, using a wheel -- the way jurors and lottery winners are picked.
Spitzer says the pool of qualified lawyers available for these jobs -- lawyers with no political affiliation -- is in the thousands citywide.
Prohibit all political insiders from getting on the approved list.
Ban all district leaders, all law partners of party leaders like Manton and Nor-man. This will knock out Batra, Reich, Bolz, Sweeney, et al.
Ban all politicians such as Sheldon Silver, Guy Velella and Tom Ognibene, who have gotten repeated appointments.
Also ban all children and wives of sitting judges. This would cover parasites like Lee Huttner, son of Brooklyn Supreme Court Justice Richard Huttner, and Thomas Garry, son of Brooklyn Supreme Court Justice William Garry.
Propose sanctions with teeth for conflicts of interest by judges.
There was no reprimand or punishment for acting Manhattan Supreme Court Justice Jane Solomon when she gave a $350,000 receivership to Fritz Alexander in 1995.
The judge had been Alexander's campaign manager when he ran for a judgeship, and they had a romantic relationship in the past. But she saw no conflict in appointing him to one of the most profitable assignments of the last decade.
Solomon even refused to recuse herself after lawyers put her double conflict on the public record.
An appellate panel found nothing wrong with her conduct, a ruling skeptics might dispute as a whitewash. Just last week, Manhattan Surrogate Renee Roth was sharply rebuked by appellate judges for hiring her former assistant as a $300-an-hour refe-ree. This came after a Bar Association report had condemned Roth for giving 66 per-cent of her appointments to her campaign contributors.
Close the loophole on the amount lawyers can make from court patronage.
The rule is that a lawyer can get only one assignment of more than $5,000 during any 12-month period. Records show that lawyers like Batra, Bolz and Harvey Green-berg get a lot of assignments for $4,800 each.
They can pocket $70,000 a year while technically obeying the $5,000 limit. We need a strict annual limit.
Ms. Spatz, you have an opportunity to build trust in the courts.
Think of the patronage courtrooms in Brooklyn and Queens as rigged casinos in Las Vegas.
And keep the faces of the flesh-and-blood victims -- the widows, orphans, and hon-est unconnected lawyers -- fixed in your mind's eye.