Sunday, November 07, 2004

Why do we elect Judges?: Or maybe we just decided to vote against the guys whose first names start with the letter "D."

Why do we elect judges?? I mean there is a real lack of sense in this process. I they could run like a regular candidate that might be different but they can’t under the judicial rules. 99% of the electorate has no idea who they are voting for or against because the judges aren’t allowed to tell them nearly anything but their names. Even if he electorate wanted to be informed ( and by no means does it show any inclination for such an education) our rules do not allow it. The result of these elections is that we pit trained qualified judges in front of a jury of voters who have not heard a bit of evidence about them before they are judged. It is a very cruel irony in that those that are accused and appear before these Judges had fairer hearings, in large part because of them.

The votes are counted, and it appears that the voters have thrown out three long time outstanding trial judges in the Nassau County Court. Now, by no means do I wish to denigrate the three new judges, all of whom are just as eminently qualified to serve in the county court as our three outgoing judges. It is just that there seems to be no rhyme or reason for the loss of three experienced well thought of jurists. The three lame duck Nassau County Court judges (Judge Dan Cotter, Judge Dan Palmeri, and Judge Donald Belfi), have all had distinguished careers as both lawyers and criminal court judges. Nary a lawyer around can say that any of these three guys was not a complete pleasure to try a case with.

Judge Belfi, the most senior judge in the Nassau County Court, was the epitome of judicial temperament patience and ability. Few Judges could have had the personality to deal with the circus that was the Long Island Railroad Massacre trial of Colin Ferguson. Judge Belfi however patiently presided over the case and gave Mr. Ferguson a far fairer trial than anyone could have imagined. Listening attentively throughout Mr. Ferguson's infuriating rants, Judge Belfi paid Mr. Ferguson respect and treated him with a dignity, which Mr. Ferguson refused to show anyone else especially his victims. In the end when he sentenced Mr. Ferguson to the maximum he could get Judge Belfi did not take that opportunity to engage in histrionics; he did not attempt to bait Mr. Ferguson or use his position as a judge as a bully pulpit, to gain publicity and notoriety for himself. Judge Belfi did his job in his usual steady way. His handling of that case was also appreciated by victims of my Ferguson. The trial that everyone though would be a disaster, in the end, thanks to Judge Belfi turned out to be one of the best examples of the American criminal justice system at work. Judge Belfi will be missed and it is a shame that the voting masses will have no idea who they turned out.

Judge Cotter was known as a Judge Belfi protégé on the bench. Taller and more patrician, Judge Cotter was one of the toughest and fairest prosecutors to come out of the Nassau County District Attorneys office. “Specializing” in homicides for most of his trial career Judge Cotter tried the very first DNA case in Nassau a gruesome murder of a young girl in Valley Stream by a neighbor. That case came on the heels of Court TV. It was one of the first telecasted hearings and trial. The atmosphere around the court house was electric and circus like. To all their credit, none of the three attorneys, Justice Goodman, then prosecutor Cotter or defense attorney Sal Marinello used the opportunity to further their career or even their case. Instead we all received an education in the science of the future. Moreover the case has stood the test of appellate review and has stood up. I have had the opportunity to work in a high profile case against Judge Cotter early in my career and found him to be fair and reasonable. I have not appeared in front of him however as a judge but have on occasion walked in to see him preside. He is courteous to counsel and accused. He listens to the arguments and he is not a rubber stamp for either side. Most of the lawyers on both sides of the case enjoyed appearing in front of him. Again his ouster makes no sense from a political or judicial sense

Our final Election Day casualty is acting State Supreme Court Justice Daniel Palmeri. Probably the least well known of the three, he also had the least criminal experience before taking this bench. I know from personal experience that did not make him unqualified to preside. Instead Dan Palmeri worked as hard as any judge to do the right thing on the bench. Though certainly conservative in nature, Judge Palmeri had guts. He did not cut corners and would not let the prosecution win just because they may be prosecuting a guilty person. He had a good Meter for those that could and those that couldn’t try a case. He was always a gentleman but he did not suffer fools and that made him sometimes seem distant. Nothing could be further from the truth. He was and is one of the most in touch judges I ever met. He has an insatiable curiosity about things. He worked hard and liked it when you did too. He listened to your arguments and read your briefs and was not afraid to say he didn’t know something and would then go and look it up. He was my favorite judge to try a case in front of on this bench because he let you try your case and stayed out of your way. He did not try to be the star attraction. He did not need to be so in control that the court room had the air of a concentration camp. And mostly he wasn’t afraid to ruffle feathers. His will be difficult shoes to fill on this bench.

When a lawyer leaves practice to become a judge he is giving up a lot. First his ability to earn a lot of money is destroyed. Even if a judge earns more money than he ever did in practice ( an anomaly to be sure) he gives up the chance to make a lot more. Second he loses his practice. His long time clients are not coming back after a decade or more on the bench. In addition he has probably not prepared to come back to practice; to set up an office; to market; to go out and get clients. Their sacrifices should not be tossed aside on just whim alone. Surely if the judge has done a good or excellent job we should want to keep him or her. These elections with their lack of information or real campaigning are worse than a Middle School Student Council election. At least there the candidates can campaign on a promise of no more homework.

I cannot discern by listening to the candidates or reading their campaign literature what the difference was between them or how anyone who did not know them personally could tell them apart. That may be okay in this instance because all six candidates were well qualified. I just do not think that this system would have excluded a candidate had he or she been not qualified.

I am of the opinion that the bench in the County Court of Nassau is a very competent bench. It is of the highest quality I have seen in my twenty plus years of practice. We are lucky in that at least on paper the three judges elect look good and have excellent credentials. I hope and pray that they can live up to the shoes they sought and succeeded in filling, for the sake of those that use the court, need the court, and work in the court.

No comments: