Fifteen of the members of the screening panel, which found Manhattan Justice Doris Ling-Cohan unqualified for a second term, have written to the Democratic Party’s judiciary committee to demand that panel’s initial finding be reversed. Curtis Arluck, the chairman of the Manhattan Democrats’ judiciary committee confirmed the receipt of the letter in an interview yesterday.
Arluck called the letter “very significant,” and stated that in his personal view the Judiciary Committee should be reconvened to consider how to respond to it. Because today is Election Day, he said, he would attempt to reconvene the committee, possibly as early as tomorrow. Arluck declined to comment upon the contents of the letter or whether they should be made public.
My sources, however, report that the letter is very wide ranging in detailing instances of impropriety, including conflicts of interest, during the committee’s deliberations. Under party rules, the Judiciary Committee is required to adopt the findings of the 22-members of the panel unless it finds improprieties in the screening process or that the committee failed to follow its own rules.
Without the release of the full contents of the letter, the outlook for a full examination of the information it has brought to the party’s attention remains in doubt. Without full disclosure, Ling-Cohan quest to clear her name may fall short even though a majority of the panel has objected to the way it went about its work. Likewise, the public will lack meaningful assurance that whatever flaws marred its work will be remedied.
Should the Judiciary Committee follow Arluck’s suggestion, this will be the second time the committee will have reviewed the panel’s work to determine whether it should accept the panel’s findings. The panel voted on Aug. 30 in a report signed by 20 of the committee’s 22 members. Two apparently did not attend the meeting.
Shortly after the panel completed its work, and before the Judiciary panel met to decide that it was acceptable, Ling-Cohan wrote to the committee to demand a new review, claiming that “people with clear conflict of interest at the meeting surely influenced the process,” according to an article published in the Gay City News on Sept. 6. To a similar effect, the Post’s article published yesterday paraphrased Arluck as saying that Ling-Cohan had suggested in her letter “there were a few people on the panel, who had a personal axe to grind because of her unfavorable rulings toward them.”
Ling-Cohan has enormous appeal in Manhattan’s political environment, which is heavily Democratic and distinctly liberal. She not only was the first Asian- American woman elected to the Supreme Court. She was also the first judge in New York State to have ruled that same-sex marriage is constitutionally protected and has been a staunch supporter of tenant’s rights as both a trial judge and a member of the Appellate Term in Manhattan.
Last week the Manhattan party leaders back-pedaled and made significant concessions to Ling-Cohan at the expense of party rules setting up the panel system in 1977 as a bulwark against allowing political considerations to compromise the selection of the party’s candidates for judgeships.
Despite its ironclad rule that the party could not endorse candidates not approved by the panel, the party’s executive committee last week agreed to condone the submission of Ling-Cohan’s name for nomination at the party’s judicial convention, which will be held on Sept. 22, even though she had failed to gain the panel’s approval.
Lingering Questions Remain
Yesterday’s article in the New York Post quoted Arluck as conceding that the panel had failed to adhere to its standards, which require that incumbent judges get the benefit of the doubt. But that leaves the lingering question of whether improprieties need to be examined. Late yesterday evening, the New York Law Journal posted an article on line, with today’s date (Sept. 13) on it, quoting extensively from the letter that Arluck had referred to earlier in my interview with him yesterday evening. The Law Journal also reported the committee members had emailed their objections to Arluck on Sunday.
The Law Journal further reported that it had obtained copies of two letters written by different groups of panelists and one from Ling-Cohan. In the version of the Law Journal article I read on line last night, there was no indication that the article linked to the full documents, as is its usual practice.
The Law Journal article did not use the words “impropriety” or “conflict,” but quoted from a letter sent by panel members to Arluck, which referred to a panel member who “apparently had an unfavorable outcome” from Ling-Cohan, as having “vigorously and insistently pushed an issue” that was germane to the panel’s decision to disapprove Ling-Cohan. The writers of the letter specifically noted that some members of the panel were unfamiliar with the issue the panelist had so forcefully raised but were given no time to research it before the panel voted.
Moreover, Ling-Cohan may not be satisfied with a resolution that does not clear her name. The New York Post’s article, breaking the news that the panel had found Ling-Cohen unqualified, reported that the panel had rejected her because she was “lazy” and “slow” in handling her cases. The Ling-Cohan camp did not immediately respond to an email asking whether she would insist upon a full-scale inquiry into the panel’s handling of her review.
The Manhattan Democratic party adopted its screening procedures nearly 40 years ago to assure the public that the old ways of Tammany Hall were dead and long gone. The screening process was specifically designed by Upper West Side reformers, led by former Corporation Counsel Victor Kovner, to assure the public that the party’s judicial nomination process is free from outside influences.
The Manhattan Democrats must conduct a full investigation of Ling-Cohan’s and 15 panel members’ claims and issue a public report detailing any irregularities uncovered and the remedies devised to prevent their re-occurrence. Without those steps, the public will not have confidence that the type of tampering Ling-Cohan and some members have complained about will never again taint future reviews of judicial candidates.