un-conventional

Queens Republican Convention Shuts Out Public on Judge Picks

The Queens Old Glory Republican Club on Myrtle Avenue in Glendale.
The Queens Old Glory Republican Club on Myrtle Avenue in Glendale. Photo: Christine Chung/THE CITY

Queens Republicans aren’t being very democratic.

Dozens of delegates for the Queens GOP’s judicial convention will gather in Glendale Wednesday to nominate candidates for six state Supreme Court vacancies — but the party is defying convention by banning the public and the press.

Adding an unexpected dose of drama the GOP might not want anyone to see: The party’s longshot district attorney candidate says he would now rather run for the bench.

Joann Ariola, the party chair, told THE CITY Monday the convention will not be open to all, as the Queens Democratic Party’s convention was last Thursday.

“It is a closed party meeting attended by duly elected delegates and alternates to the judicial convention,” Ariola said.

She did not respond to repeated requests about the location and time of the event. The convention is scheduled for Wednesday evening at the Old Glory Club in Glendale, a source close to the party said.

By state law, the window for party judicial conventions began last Thursday and expires Wednesday. Over the past week, a handful of conventions across other boroughs were open to the public. The Manhattan Democratic Party’s convention on Monday night was even advertised online.

Queens DA Pick in the Air

Multiple sources familiar with the judicial convention process said the meetings are generally brief affairs lacking controversy or much in the way of heated discussions about nominations.

However, the GOP’s Wednesday convention could potentially rewrite the landscape of another high-profile local race — the Queens district attorney general election in November.

Daniel Kogan, an Ozone Park-based lawyer and the Queens GOP’s nominee for district attorney, told THE CITY Monday that he would be “very pleased” if the party nominated him for one of the six vacancies. He noted he’d indicated this sentiment to Republican leaders.

“I’m waiting to see what happens with the judicial convention and then, you know, if I’m not nominated then I’ll go back to Queens DA race,” Kogan said. “It’s always an uphill battle for somebody running on the Republican line with all the Democrats, but it would be an honor.”

With the vast majority of the borough’s eligible voters registered as Democrats, odds are long for Republican nominees to prevail.

Kogan had previously told THE CITY that he was not planning on running a vigorous campaign for DA. He is currently scheduled to appear on the ballot against Borough President Melinda Katz, the Democratic nominee.

Ariola has maintained Kogan is the GOP nominee. She said party leadership had “nothing new” to report on whether he will be replaced with another candidate, such as Democratic primary contender Gregory Lasak, who could not be reached for comment.

Perpetuating a Lack of Awareness

There are 1,350 judges appointed or elected under state laws, New York State Unified Court System spokesperson Lucian Chalfen confirmed.

But the selection process for various state courts is far from uniform. Some judgeships, like the Court of Appeals, are appointed by the governor, while Civil Court seats have open primaries.

According to a statute that dates to 1921, state Supreme Court judges are nominated by party delegates and elected without a primary. Critics have said this lends an inordinate amount of power to party leaders to shape the judicial bench.

Since state Supreme Court contenders do not run campaigns and are effectively chosen by a small slice of the party, the majority of voters will encounter the nominees names for the first time on Election Day.

David Birdsell, dean of Baruch College’s Marxe School of Public and International Affairs, called the judicial lines on the general election ballot “some of the least well-understood candidacies in our city.”

Closed conventions perpetuate this lack of public awareness, he added.

“Anything that we can do to increase information about candidates and people’s understandings of the job itself is a good thing,” Birdsell said.

A ‘Laughable’ System

Some political insiders said the Queens GOP’s closed-door policy on the convention does not pose a conflict because internal party sessions are not governed by open meeting laws.

James Sample, a judicial elections expert and professor at Hofstra Law School, called the judicial convention process a “system that has all of the appearances and trappings of democracy but none of the substance of democracy.”

“The idea that one would trust a process that is intentionally shrouded in secrecy and intentionally hidden from the public is laughable,” Sample said.

Susan Lerner, executive director of grassroots watchdog group Common Cause NY, said the Queens Democratic Party’s nomination of Wyatt Gibbons for state Supreme Court highlighted that the “system of judicial election is pretty much a sham.”

Gibbons was nominated just months after being roundly defeated in a June 25 Civil Court primary by an insurgent candidate.

“If a party can turn around and completely ignore the will of the voters expressed in the last month, then what sort of judicial election system do we have?” Lerner said.

Past attempts to reform the system have been unsuccessful. In 2004, after repeatedly failing to secure a party nomination for a Brooklyn Supreme Court seat, Margarita Lopez-Torres sued the Board of Elections, alleging party bosses tip the scales in nominations.

Represented by the Brennan Center, Lopez-Torres won in District Court and in the Second Circuit, prior to the decision being overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2007. The Supreme Court upheld the state’s judicial selection process, ruling it did not violate the First Amendment.

Sample, one of Lopez-Torres’ attorneys on the case, said that closed conventions were an “indication of just how little the parties actually want the input or even the sunlight associated with opening the process to not just members of the public but members even of their own party.”

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