The acquittal earlier this month of Manhattan Surrogate Nora Anderson, of charges stemming from her successful 2008 judicial campaign, was more than just a victory for the accused. It was also a reprieve for Democrats like myself, who have an almost religious belief in the sanctity of Manhattan’s judicial election process.
Anderson was accused of skirting New York’s $33,122 campaign donation limit by accepting $250,000 in loans and gifts from her law partner, and funneling the money into her primary campaign. The jury bought Surrogate Anderson’s argument that her maneuver could be interpreted as being legal under New York’s murky campaign finance law—a verdict that has allowed the suspended Surrogate to take the bench.
As a political activist, I have long taken pride in how we Manhattan Democrats choose our judicial candidates. Unlike the hyperpolitical process that prevails in much of the city, Manhattan Democrats have a tradition of valuing merit over party loyalty. As a result, the spectacle of judges being led away in handcuffs was only something that could happen in the outer boroughs, I believed.
Manhattan’s bench wasn’t always so clean. In the heyday of Tammany Hall, party bosses decided who would make the ballot. Judgeships were distributed as political favors. Sometimes bribes were involved.
In the 1970s, reformers—led by the Upper East Side’s Lexington Democratic Club—won control of Manhattan’s Democratic party. To lessen the role of politics in judicial elections, independent screening panels, made up of members of legal associations and community groups, were established to evaluate candidates.
Only candidates approved by the panels are eligible to receive the backing of the party’s political clubs. Then the politics begins.
Deals are negotiated, campaign cash is raised and political consultants hired. This is the process Anderson went through, before winning the Democratic primary and running unopposed in the general election.
Respecting the screening panel’s choices is voluntary for political clubs and elected officials. But Democrats have steadfastly honored the arrangement, as it is regarded as the jewel of the reform movement, the marker that differentiates Manhattan Democrats from our counterparts in the rest of the city. So when Anderson was indicted last fall, I took it as an indictment of the trust that has been placed in the panel system.
I asked political consultant Jerry Skurnik if the screening panels are as free from political influence as their advocates claim they are.
“I’ve heard all sorts of rumors—none that I have been able to substantiate—about panels being fixed for certain candidates,” he said.
But Skurnik thinks the Democrats’ process for choosing nominees is as good as any other way to pick a judge.
“It screens out the clunkers. You never hear of a real turkey getting through a panel,” he said.
If Surrogate Anderson had been convicted, it would have meant that the panel system had failed in its mission to ensure that only quality candidates make the ballot. Her acquittal allows me and other Democrats to maintain our faith in the borough’s judicial election process.
Some observers are unimpressed by the not guilty verdict. In an editorial, the Daily News opined that despite her acquittal, Surrogate Anderson’s questionable campaign finance tactics makes her unfit for the bench. And the Kings County District Attorney might bring charges against Anderson, since some of her campaign finance transactions occurred in Brooklyn.
Whatever you think of Anderson’s conduct during her campaign, a jury has decided it was not criminal. This means that she will get the chance to demonstrate her integrity on the bench and prove that Democrats made a wise choice in putting her there.
Ben Krull is a lawyer and essayist who lives on the Upper East Side.
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