One of the dilemmas we will face in the voting booth (or voting table, as the case is this year with new voting machines) on November 2, will be who or whether to vote for for those obscure, down-ballot races for judge. For the life of me I cannot fathom why we have elections for judicial candidates! Unless you're an active practitioner in the courts -- or are a relative, neighbor, or friend of a judicial candidate -- how and on what basis do you pick and choose?
In Westchester there are contests for Supreme Court Judge (not the highest court in the State -- that being the Court of Appeals in New York, where judges are appointed), Westchester County Court, Westchester Family Court, and Surrogates Court. So although I believe these positions should be appointed in some nonpartisan fashion, given that the selection is put up to a vote, I want the opportunity to try to make an informed decision and cast my ballot. In past years I would sometimes defer to the editorial endorsements from the Gannett-owned Journal News, hoping that they have undertaken adequate due diligence. But they no longer make endorsements in judicial races.
But if you think you can simply defer to specific political parties to make the choice for you, think again.
By way of example, I've chosen to focus on the Westchester County Family Court race, in part because if what I found by doing some bare-bones due diligence.
According to the New York State court website, the Family Court hears and determines most legal issues involving children and families, including matters involving: child custody and visitation; adoptions and guardianship; juvenile delinquency; persons in need of supervision; child neglect and abuse; monetary support for children, spouses and ex-spouses; determination of paternity; and domestic violence between family members. Now fortunately, I have never had any direct personal experience in or with Family Court, nor do I have any contact with it professionally. The family Court judges are elected for 10-year terms and their current salary is pegged at $136,700 per year.
There are 10 candidates vying for 4 slots on November 2nd. They are:
-- Nilda Morales Horowitz (D, C , I, WF) (no website)
-- Hal Greenwald (D, C, WF) (no website)
-- David Klein (D, WF) (no website)
-- Michelle Schauer (D, WF) (www.electschauer.com)
-- Edward Borelli (R, C)(www.edborrelli.com)
-- Bill Edwards (R, I) (no website)
-- Patricia O'Callaghan (R, C, I) (www.ocallaghan2010.com)
-- Mary Clark (R, I, RTL)( no website)
-- Raymond Belair (RTL) (no website)
-- Anthony Decintio (RTL) (no website)
(It makes me crazy that judicial candidates take the "Right to Life" party line -- I believe this to be highly unethical -- as would someone who would run on a hypothetical "right to choose" party line... but I digress.)
So the first thing I did was Google the major party candidates. Nilda Morales Horowitz is on the ballot for four parties: Democratic, Conservative, Independence, and Working Families. She has served as Family Court Judge since 2001. The first Google mention of Judge Horowitz is the fact that she was censured by the New York State Commission on Judicial Conduct in 2005. A dissent was filed in the matter advocating her removal from the bench rather than censure. The Commission's quite damning decision is here. In a nutshell, the Commission found that Judge Horowitz interfered with cases before other judges on the Family Cour -- not once, but twice -- seeking preferential treatment for participants in cases before the Court. According to the Commission decision, when one judge objected to Horowitz's request, Judge Horowitz chastised her colleague as being "ridiculous" and that "everybody does it." The "it" I can only presume is to interfere in cases before the court. Nowhere can I find some statement of contrition from Judge Horowitz. The Commission's censure occurred five years ago. Why did the Democratic, Conservative, Independence, and Working Families parties decide to nominate Judge Horowitz for another term? Are there no other qualified lawyers in Westchester to perform this job?
This is ludicrous.
Now contrast the Horowitz candidacy with another Democratic candidate, who I actually met a few weeks ago, Michelle Schauer. She was appointed to a temporary slot on the Family Court by Governor Paterson and is now running for a full 10-year term. I met Michelle Schauer through a mutual friend, and she came on a radio show I guest hosted with the editor of the Westchester-Eye, Peter Moses. Although Michelle is not permitted to talk about "issues," she did lay out her experience and qualifications, and her calm, deliberative temperament (what you really want in a judge) was clearly on display. And unlike some of the other candidates, she provided a detailed bio to the New York State Court website voter guide, and she has a website. Of the other candidates, I've seen television ads and tons of signs for Patricia O'Callaghan, who appears to be spending the most money of all the candidates on the race. Other than reaching out and talking to each candidate (which I don't have time to do), this is the basis for my choice for Family Court.
So I will, on November 2, lodge a bullet vote for Michelle Schauer. And I will continue to wonder why four political parties, including one major party, chose to nominate a formally censured judge for re-election.