By Jason Boog, firstname.lastname@example.org, 09-21-2008
A combination of kabuki theater and the wisdom of (informed) crowds was on display at Manhattan's judicial convention last week. A fly on the wall reports.
More than 150 Democrats gathered at the Ansche Chesed Temple on the Upper West Side Thursday evening. There, in a packed basement auditorium, they anointed four candidates to fill coveted State Supreme Court seats.
The rowdy event seemed like a cross between a City Hall meeting, a high school play, and a circus. Old-time political operatives, fresh-faced politicians, and incumbent judges (seemingly naked in civilian clothes) all mingled during the course of the three-hour proceeding.
It was the climax of a clubhouse-centered race that had seen 10 candidates strive for months to woo more than 100 judicial delegates. The party’s endorsement, of course, virtually guarantees election victory in the overwhelmingly Democratic Borough.
Unlike the Brooklyn judicial convention — a quick, quiet, and completely scripted event that was held earlier in the week — the more than 120 Manhattan delegates carried on cheery conversations during the whole ceremony. At times, the chatter from enthusiastic party members threatened to overwhelm the chairman’s attempts to complete dull roll calls and procedural motions.
Like secret agents, political consultants and amateur analysts weaved through the throng of delegates, trying to discern the evening’s big question: Would Acting Supreme Court Judge Judith J. Gische or her rival Acting Supreme Court Justice Lucy Adams Billings win the day?
In all, four judges received the party’s blessing to serve as Supreme Court Justices for 14 years.
Billings wore a purple suit jacket, a black skirt and a big button that read: “I LOVE LUCY” framed inside a giant heart. The button was a popular fashion accessory among the jurist’s many supporters at the convention.
Gische, on the other hand, wore a conservative grey jacket with a black skirt, and her only campaign material was a plain sheet of white paper that listed the politicians who endorsed her.
Following party tradition, three Supreme Court incumbents were automatically granted the party’s endorsement: Marcy L. Kahn, Shirley Kornreich, and Martin Schoenfeld. Dressed in a dapper black suit, Schoenfeld gave a passionate defense of the closed and clubby convention system that the U.S. Supreme Court disparaged, but deemed Constitutional, earlier this year.
“I want to thank the attorneys who worked on the Lopez Torres case,” said Schoenfeld. “They convinced the U.S. Supreme Court that our system does work.”
The audience cheered at his dig against the landmark litigation that would have overturned judicial conventions,. “Of course, it’s not a perfect system,” he concluded. [But] you are a valid cross-section of Manhattan.”
Once the incumbents were re-affirmed, five unsuccessful delegates carried out an equally ceremonial task of declining their nominations to the Supreme Court. The five jurists did not manage to secure enough delegate support to justify a floor vote, but each made a one-minute speech alluding to future bids for the court.
Those unsuccessful candidates were: Acting Supreme Court Justices Debra A. James, Ellen Gesmer, and Laura E. Drager; as well as Civil Court Judges Saliann Scarpulla and Cynthia Kern.
As Civil Court Judge Cynthia Kern declined her nomination, she applauded the group of more than 120 delegates. “You actually had an opportunity to meet every candidate,” she said. “You are one of the most informed electorates that we have for the selection of judges.”
Once all the unsuccessful candidates declined, all eyes turned to Billings and Gische for the only unscripted part of the convention.
“My name is Desi Arnez, and I love Lucy!” yelled Assemblyman Adriano Espaillat as he endorsed Justice Billings at the convention podium. The crowd roared at his reference to television comedian Lucille Ball — a whimsical, if strange, judicial role model.
Once her name was officially entered, another politician rose for Gische.
“Justice Gische handled two major cases,” said Assemblyman Keith L.T. Wright from the podium, endorsing the judge for her work on two celebrity divorces. “The divorce of Rudolph Giuliani and [Sopranos actor] James Gandolfini. She can mess with Tony Soprano and the former and hopefully never-to-be-again mayor of New York!”
Once again, huge cheers.
During the rapid-fire oral vote for the two candidates, the crowd kept track of the delegate score on homemade scorecards, whispering numbers like seasoned gamblers. In the end, the count was 65 votes for Gische, 61 votes for Billings and one stray vote for Civil Court Judge Saliann Scarpulla. Both Gische and Billings ascended the platform, delivering their final remarks.
Afterwards, two political consultants assessed rumors about
Prime New York consultant Jerry Skurnick weighed in on rumors that a few Billings delegates didn’t show up for the floor count. “I did hear that there were two or three Billings delegates who didn’t show up. I’m not sure if there were more than two or three, I wasn’t involved in the counting process,” he explained.
He demurred to explain what that meant, saying that some delegates are always missing at the convention.
Ernest Lendler, a consultant who specializes in Brooklyn and Bronx races, noted that Manhattan always has more interesting conventions. “There’s a lot more politicking for delegates in Manhattan than there is anywhere else,” he said, alluding to the borough where the party chairman has traditionally wielded the ultimate authority over judicial delegates.
“There is a much less loose structure, people actually go among the clubs and campaign for votes.”
In terms of campaign cash, Gische won the money race by thousands of dollars. According to the state Board of Elections, Justice Gische raised $61,800 for her Supreme Court bid, in 2004 she raised nearly $4,000, and finally, in 2007, she raised $4,300. She had no record on file for 2008.
In 2007, Billings raised $14,200 for her Supreme Court bid. She didn’t file any records with the Board of Elections this year.
At the New York Daily News, Elizabeth Benjamin reported that a number of anonymous readers had chimed in with various theories about why Billings lost.
Despite these minor controversies, this is a familiar convention narrative for judges in Manhattan. Last year at this time, Judicial Reports published an article about the Manhattan judicial convention. In that race, Paul Feinman won the nomination, leaving Gische in the cold. Billings participated as well, but couldn’t muster enough votes to justify a floor vote.
One year later, both candidates had increased their political base substantially, and Gische’s long campaign was finally rewarded.
With that in mind, Billings should be a likely choice next year. Her concession speech left open the possibility of a run next year, and her solid delegate support (buttons and TV jokes included) won’t evaporate.
Just like Gische, who has been raising money for her Supreme Court bid since 2003, she can keep knocking until the party leaders open the door.