Charles Hynes, the district attorney of Brooklyn, New York, did not go looking for cases of judicial corruption. But he has not shied away from prosecuting them. His indictments of judges and political leaders have earned him the enmity of his own party but, more important, have cast a very public light upon a broken judicial-selection process.
The cases involve charges of bribery and corruption, and Hynes is investigating numerous judges. But what has really hit home with the public is Hynes' allegation that one judge, Gerald Garson, accepted bribes to fix divorce and custody cases. Garson maintains his innocence, but in February, a rabbi and his daughter pleaded guilty to paying $5,000 to an intermediary they understood would bribe Garson in a custody case. "These are family cases, where people are so much more vulnerable," says Fern Schair, chair of the Committee for Modern Courts, an advocacy group. "These aren't commercial cases."
Beyond the prosecution of judges, what's gotten Hynes, 68, in a world of political trouble is twice indicting New York state Representative Clarence Norman, longtime head of the Brooklyn Democratic Party. Party officials are being targeted in cases surrounding judicial corruption because they are the ones who pick the judges. The way most judges are selected in New York is a vestige of the machine politics of an earlier day. The process is complex, but basically the leader of the dominant party within a district--whether Democratic in New York City or Republican upstate--gets to pick who is nominated at a closed convention, which then rubberstamps that choice.
Judges are elected, but voters are not given any real choice. The minority party usually will not bother running its own candidate and may even give its nod to the other party's nominee. "Any suggestion that the office of the state Supreme Court is an elective office where the citizen has an unfettered right to vote is an illusion," Hynes says. (In New York, the state's highest court is the Court of Appeals, not the Supreme Court.)
Party leaders not only choose whom they want, many have done so with more regard to party loyalty and fundraising than to legal capability or scholarship. Garson, for example, had been a party treasurer in Brooklyn.
Although judicial candidates are barred from making direct contributions to the party, they can buy tickets to expensive party functions. Or they can be pressured in other ways. One of the indictments of Norman, the party chief, charged him with coercing judicial hopefuls into buying services from a favored campaign consultant.
The Buffalo News ran a lengthy series two years ago about problems with the state's judicial-selection system, but the Hynes indictments have brought the arcane process its greatest attention yet. Changing the process for picking judges would take the votes of two consecutive legislatures, which is unlikely to happen anytime soon. That's why reformers are pushing for short-term fixes that would inject merit or increased voter say into the process. Hynes, who first won fame in the Howard Beach murder case, has endorsed a federal lawsuit filed in March by the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU Law School that calls for nominating judges through direct primaries.
In the meantime, Hynes is working hard to preserve his own political career and is planning to seek a fifth term next year. A relatively unknown candidate gave him a scare in 2001, taking 36 percent of the vote. With Hynes becoming a pariah within his own party, a bevy of other officeholders is considering running. "The more the merrier," says Hynes, who is spending many of his evenings speaking at synagogues and service clubs, hoping to rebuild his political base.