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CityLaw Breakfast: Michael Cardozo

Stating that every challenge his office faces comes down to “the quality of the judges we appear before,” Corporation Counsel Michael Cardozo, speaking at a CityLaw Breakfast on March 24th, condemned the practice of allowing judicial conventions to nominate State Supreme Court judges and called for the establishment of independent panels to screen and nominate candidates.

Currently in New York State, slates of delegates are elected in each Assembly district and these delegates decide who will be on the ballot for their party. While Mr. Cardozo maintained that most judges in the state are hard-working and qualified, he pointed out that last year nine judicial candidates in Brooklyn were found unqualified by the bar association.A recent article posted on the Web site AlbanyInsanity, commented on the process:

In the City, the local Democratic Party machine usually controls the slates of delegates that inevitably end up winning the nominal races. Simply put, boss-controlled delegates vote for boss-approved candidates. As one veteran of the Bronx judicial convention told me, “I never knew who I was going to vote for until they told me when I got there.The conventions are a joke.

In his talk at the CityLaw Breakfast, sponsored by the Center for New York City Law, Mr. Cardozo said that under the judicial convention system qualified candidates often cannot get on the ballot and the decision about who will be put on the ballot is left in the hands of a few county political leaders.

“Shame on us if this is the way we are going to let our judges be selected,” Mr. Cardozo said.

Mr. Cardozo noted that his disapproval of the judicial convention system is shared by the federal courts.In January 2006, following a lawsuit filed by newly elected Surrogate Court Judge Margarita Lopez Torres and several good government groups, Federal Judge John Gleeson of the United States District Court in Brooklyn ruled that the practice of selecting candidates for State Supreme Court justice at judicial nominating conventions is unconstitutional. Judge Gleeson’s decision said all State Supreme Court justices should be elected in open primaries until the current system is rectified.

Mr. Cardozo said that while he favored creating independent panels to nominate candidates, a Constitutional amendment would be required to make that change.In the meantime, Mr. Cardozo said, we can hold open primaries or focus on correcting the current system.

Mr. Cardozo said he believed the open primary system would be too politicized.He argued that the best solution for now is to take steps to ensure that the candidates nominated by conventions are highly qualified.He said each political party can pass internal rules to establishindependent qualifications committees.In addition, he said, the number of delegates at the conventions and the number of signatures required for a candidate to get on the ballot can be reduced.

Mr. Cardozo said a second major issue the city faces is the extensive use of consent decrees.The problem is that the decrees can go on forever and as a result, commissioners’ hands often are tied and judges must micromanage. Mr. Cardozo said that the first priority should be to comply with the law to avoid potential law suits, but that when this failed, the system needed to be able to limit agreements.He said New York City today is still being ruled by agreements entered into when Abraham Beame was the mayor.

Mr. Cardozo gave one example of a better method.He said that in 2002, a law suit was filed against the city alleging violence in the prison system.The case was settled not by a consent decree, but by the city entering into a private contract with the complainant’s lawyer.The case was then dismissed in federal court.If the city fails to meet the terms of the contract, the plaintiff can file a breach of contract suit in state court.The agreement ends with Mayor Bloomberg’s term in office.

Mr. Cardozo also spoke about the need for changes in the way tort cases are handled.He said four years ago, the city paid out $556 million. Mr. Cardozo said his office has made “some major strides” in reducing tort payments.The caseload was down by 30 percent as of June 2005, he said, and payments decreased by 12 percent to $489 million. Mr. Cardozo said more legislative reform is needed in this area and cited the ruling on sidewalk maintenance as an example.

A few years ago, the legislature changed the law so that landlords, rather than New York City, were responsible for maintaining sidewalks around their property.As a result of this one change, the city has saved around $40 million so far, Mr. Cardozo said.

The corporation counsel deals with many other issues, as well, Mr. Cardozo said, including gun control, the environment and the recent transit strike. Mr. Cardozo explained that the variety of issues and their complexity make for a challenging job and a very busy office.

“As corporation counsel of this city, I have the greatest job any lawyer could have,” he concluded.