Brooklyn's 1st Civil Court District: Judicial Candidates
The most neglected part of electoral politics is the election of judges. And yet in many ways more people are affected by who gets elected judge than any other elected position. The ignorance most people have about judicial candidates means that more often than not political bosses can shove any political crony they want into our court system regardless of qualifications. Did you know that although there is a screening panel there is no requirement for someone to even have practiced law in order to be a judge. This was dramatically demonstrated in 2007 when the Brooklyn political machine, including Vito Lopez, Marty Markowitz and Dominic Recchia, supported Noach Dear, a known homophobe, for judge despite the fact that the NY Bar Assn had declared him unqualified and he had never practiced law in his life. So now Brooklyn has a useless, homophobic judge on the bench just because local politicians wanted to give him a political plum. Our courts deserve better.
I am happy to say that in 2008 Brooklyn has a better choice. Last night at the Independent Neighborhood Democrats meeting I got to hear five candidates for judicial positions. Three candidates are running for three countywide slots. All three were good and are likely to get elected with no problem unless other candidates pop up. But the race for Brooklyn's 1st Civil Court seat has two competing candidates: Devin Cohen and Roger Adler.
Disclaimer: Devin Cohen is a friend. He and my wife have known each other since high school and Devin got us into Brooklyn politics. That said, I am always fair when it comes to politics, as a candidate who approached me regarding another race where I have a friend running found out. I am likely to support my friends when they run (if I don't think they are qualified I will tell them long before they run!) but that doesn't mean I will be saying anything bad about their opponents if I think they are good too. This article is one that a couple of people (NOT Devin, mind you) have been urging me to write because they find Adler untrustworthy. I refused to write this article until I had had a chance to meet and hear Adler speak. Now that I have given Adler a chance and heard the reactions of many people, I can write about this race with some knowledge and not just because my friend is running.
First off, this is not like the Noach Dear case. Both Devin Cohen and Roger Adler are fully qualified, intelligent and capable. That is always good news, when you have two good candidates to choose from. But we still have to choose between the two good candidates, and there are two problems that people have brought up to me regarding Adler, and now that I have heard him out, I think I can agree with these two problems.
Devin Cohen is an experienced litigator and a very active member of the community. In addition to his law practice, he is an EMT who worked at ground zero on 9/11, is 1st Vice Chair of Community Board Six, has helped to keep a local firehouse open, and is a former president of the Independent Neighborhood Democrats (a club I am on the board of). He has also served as a delegate to the King's County Judicial Convention. His experience and community work alone makes him an excellent candidate for judge. But he has two things over Adler: impeccable integrity and a temperament that is well suited for the court.
Time after time I have heard people, even people who disagree with Devin, comment on his honesty and integrity. Devin will hear anyone out, listening to their point of view. But he will never compromise his values even if when it would be politically expedient to do so. Too many people compromise their values to get ahead. Devin's honesty and integrity are two constants that everyone who knows him comments on.
Adler, by his own admission last night, will play the "you wash my back and I'll wash your back" that is all too often a part of politics. Adler is running as a Democrat and professes progressive Democratic values. And yet a quick check of his political donations shows that he supports candidates all over the political spectrum. He has consistently donated to the NY Conservative Party from 1999-2006. This group is about as anti-progressive as you can get. His donations to the Conservative Party are not small. He has donated as much as $4,500 in one month (May 2002) to this right wing organization. He has donated to several Republicans including George Pataki and Marty Golden. He donated to Congressman Vito Fossella, the gentleman who was recently caught driving drunk and who turns out to have a secret family his wife, and constituents, never knew about. And he donated to Al D'Amato when Chuck Schumer was running against him.
I asked him about these donations last night. He denied the Al D'Amato donation, but there is a record of Roger Adler donating to Friends of Al D'Amato on 05/21/1997. I assume his denial of this donation last night was an honest mistake. Perhaps it is hard for him to keep track of all the donations he makes. He then defended his donations to right wing conservatives in two ways. First he said that he is an "independent Democrat" who donates to individuals rather than through blind party loyalty.
What this means to me is that he genuinely supports the values of Pataki, Golden, "Two Family Values" Fossella, and Al D'Amato. He chose to support those individuals rather than their Democratic opponents. This contradicts his other claims that he believes in progressive Democratic values. He also defended his contributions by pointing out that he also donated to Democrats like Joan Millman and David Yassky, whose values are nothing like Vito Fossella's or Al D'Amato's. So I am unclear on what Mr. Adler's values really are given his tendency to contribute to people with widely different values. But the answer may lie in his other excuse.
Mr. Adler also used what another member of IND described perhaps too harshly as the "whore defense." I think that isn't fair since many if not most politicians play the game of washing the backs of those who wash their backs. Adler claims that he donates to those who help him out. This is a clear exchange of favors all to common in politics. When you look at Adler's Democratic donations many are local politicians whose support he'd want such as Joan Millman and David Yassky. In fact if you look at the record of his contributions, they all are to people who could help his political career...including former Democratic County Leader Clarence Norman, who is currently in jail for corruption. Is this another example of Adler choosing to donate to individuals he sees as worthy? Or is it another example of washing each other's backs. Clarence Norman was involved in a lot of mutual back washing and Adler would not be unique in this. But is this the kind of judge Brooklyn wants? Just because it is common doesn't mean it is right. In Devin's contribution record I can find no such evidence of supporting people whose values are radically different from his own. Again, Devin will listen to everyone and consider what they say, but he doesn't abandon his values to play the game of back washing. Adler pretty much admitted last night that back washing is the explanation for donations to people he disagrees with.
And what does this back washing get Adler? The backing of the Democratic Party boss in Brooklyn: Vito Lopez (the same guy who endorsed the unqualified and homophobic Noach Dear). Although I don't think either Lopez or Adler are anti-gay, there is an emerging pattern within members of the Brooklyn Democratic machine support people like Noach Dear, donate to the anti-marriage equality Conservative Party, and, in Adler's case, even helps the Conservative Party file a legal case against marriage equality. Each incident in isolation is disturbing, but often explainable. Taken together, it shows a clear willingness to throw gay rights under the train for political expediency. And Adler seems a part of this problem along with Vito Lopez and Marty Markowitz.
The second clear difference between Roger Adler and Devin Cohen was something I felt right away but couldn't put my finger on it until practically every other person in the room also commented on it: temperament. Devin Cohen is relaxed, calm and gives people his full attention, hearing them out completely. When Roger Adler came up to speak, I sensed an immediate impatience and dismissiveness even as he was being introduced. This demeanor made him a bit offputting. People talk about judges needing a "judicial temperament." This was a term I was unaware of until last year's judicial elections. People often have a hard time describing it, but "know when the see it." Having heard many people use this term it seems that key elements of a "judicial personality" are the ability to listen, letting people know they are being heard and their arguments understood, and a clear demeanor of fairness. Devin Cohen projects all of these qualities in a way that would make him an excellent judge. No one felt that Roger Adler projected these qualities, though all agreed he did not completely lack them. Devin Cohen clearly has a judicial temperament. Roger Adler seems to have a less perfect temperament for the bench.
Once again, let me emphasize that both candidates are qualified. But we need to choose between them. Roger Adler may have a small edge in terms of litigation experience, and this will be his main argument for voting for him. But Devin Cohen is quite well experienced as well, and his clear sense of fairness, he consistent integrity and honesty, and his "judicial temperament" that conveys to people he is listening to them all make him a better candidate for being a judge. Additionally, Roger Adler has consistent ties to the Conservative Party, to Clarence Norman and to Vito Lopez. These are, in my book, unsavory connections. It comes down to this: if you were in a courtroom, which of these two qualified individuals would you rather have hearing your case. Across the board people agreed Devin Cohen was preferable.