What Are Judicial Delegates, and Why Should I Care?

On Primary Day, September 13, voters get the opportunity to choose judicial delegates — elected posts that precious few people know about. Despite this obscurity, these delegates play a pivotal role in electing State Supreme Court justices whose decisions affect all of us.

Back in the old days, Manhattan reformers battled Bronx regulars within the same jurisdictional turf. Now that Manhattan is a jurisdiction onto itself, a few bad apples with no claim to being reformers have manipulated the system. With little regard to merit or progressive philosophy, these political insiders push their handpicked allies, who often go on to make disastrous decisions on the bench.

For our community, the stakes in this obscure judicial delegate process are huge.

PERSPECTIVE: Insider Trading

Let’s consider some of my all-time favorite Supreme Court justices, including Bruce Wright (dubbed “Turn Them Loose Bruce” by right-wing columnists and Ed Koch), Emily Jane Goodman who represented me and the Gay Activists Alliance pro bono in the early 1970s, and Doris Ling-Cohan who wrote the marriage equality decision in 2005.

Ling-Cohan’s decision was overturned by a bunch of know-nothing bigoted Appellate Court justices — George D. Marlow, Milton L. Williams John W. Sweeny Jr., with the concurrence of James M. Catterson. They rejected Ling-Cohan’s finding that gender-specific terms in state marriage law, such as “husband, “wife,” “groom,” and “bride,” should be construed to apply equally to men and women. The appellate majority instead found that the definition of marriage enshrined in state law “expresses an important, long-recognized public policy supporting, among other things, procreation, child welfare and social stability — all legitimate state interests.”

Justice David B. Saxe dissented, saying that the denial of civil marriage to gay and lesbian New Yorkers “perpetuates a deeply ingrained form of legalized discrimination.”

This is just one example of how our lives are deeply affected by who represents us in the State Supreme Court.

Though the judicial selection process is good on paper and has been found to be constitutional, the system in Manhattan has been perverted by several people whose egos, backroom dealings, and, at least in one case, payment of consultant fees. Today, most judicial delegates do as they are told without any understanding of the kind of people they are promoting. Often deals are made before the prospective delegates even know who the candidates are.

One major manipulator of the system is former Sheldon Silver aide Joanna Saccone, who is a paid consultant and has a long history of non-progressive politics. In the 1970s, she aligned herself with Carol Greitzer in the Village Independent Democrats against progressive gay candidates Jim Owles and David Rothenberg. Greitzer criticized the original authors of the gay rights bill for writing and sponsoring this first-in-the-country legislation. In 1981, Saccone stormed out of a VID meeting when the club endorsed Mario Cuomo for governor over Ed Koch. VID was Ed Koch’s home club but the closeted Koch’s bid was rejected because of his overt race-baiting, scandals, sabotage of the gay rights bill, and support of the Republican Party. (I will never forget the time Koch called his black colleague in Congress, Ron Dellums of California, a “Zulu warrior.”)

In 2013, one of Saccone’s paying clients, Civil Court Judge Lori Sattler, bullied a mother of two, Lisa Mehos, in open court because Mehos had an abortion. This justice then allowed Mehos’ abortion to be used as evidence of her being an unfit mother. Justice Goodman, by then retired and in private practice representing Mehos, objected and rightly stated that the fact that Mehos had an abortion was irrelevant to her being a fit mother.

Though the Appellate Division upheld Sattler on her decision in the custody case, it found that her line of questioning on Mehos’ abortion was “inappropriate,” “irrelevant,” and “embarrassing.” The court determined it was an error to permit the testimony.

During the uproar that followed the Sattler decision, Saccone accused those opposing her favorite client of bullying when it was only Saccone who was making threats — including one directed at me while I ate my lunch during a Democratic fundraiser.

Joining retired Justice Goodman in this fight against Saccone and Sattler was out gay civil rights attorney Tom Shanahan and attorney Ron Kliegerman, who was married to the late (and great) State Senator Catherine Abate. The attorneys had the support of advocates like Sonia Ossorio, president of the New York Chapter of the National Organization for Women, and elected officials including Public Advocate Tish James, Congressmember Adriano Espaillat, and City Councilmembers Margaret Chin, Rosie Mendez, and Helen Rosenthal.

On Sattler and Saccone’s side was Donald Trump’s go-to lawyer, Marc Kasowitz.

Despite these prominent voices urging that Sattler not be elevated from the Civil Court to the Supreme Court, Saccone’s judicial delegates made sure that Sattler — and Sheldon Silver’s clubhouse politics — prevailed.

More on this in my next column, as well as about how East Side District Leaders Louise Dankberg and Josh Kravitz, former State Senator Tom Duane, attorney Sue Moss of the law firm Chemtob, Moss, Forman & Beyda, and the political printer Al Handell, president of NYPrints LLC, promoted Sattler in spite of her indefensible treatment of a mother who dared to exercise her right to choose. Stay tuned.

In other news, congratulations to openly gay Supreme Court Justice Franc Perry for ruling against a co-op resident who insisted on flying an American flag from a pole outside his window. Perry (who was heavily promoted by Assemblymember Inez Dickens) noted that Desmond “is free to display his flag within the confines of his unit.” Well done Dickens… and well done, Franc Perry.

Meanwhile, our self-described progressive mayor is using his Law Department to enforce a Giuliani-era statute aimed at curbing an already shrinking number of porn stores. Perhaps the mayor needs to be reminded that sexual liberation was one of the founding goals of the gay rights movement.

And now she comes for Alan Cumming! Manhattan Community Board 3 District Manager Susan Stetzer has found new reasons to harass Club Cumming. She now has them in limbo — taking away the livelihood of numerous employees and entertainers. No matter how diligent a bar owner or operator might be, Stetzer will find a way to fuck things up for venues catering to the LGBTQ community. Let’s count ourselves lucky that Rainbow Flags are still allowed within her community board boundaries. Friends, we must band together and end the madness. Why hasn’t Borough President Gale Brewer stepped in? After all, isn’t she the one who keeps reappointing all of these anti-nightlife board members?

And for those who want to get out of Trump country, I recommend a long visit to the Andaz Costa Rica Resort at Peninsula Papagayo. Andaz has worked with the Costa Rican government and business community in advancing the rights of the LGBTQ community — and that support shows in how the staff embraces its gay travelers. Cementing this beautiful country’s status as one of Latin America’s most gay-friendly destinations was the election of President Carlos Alvarado, who, running on a marriage equality platform, won by 21.5 percentage points over his opponent, Fabricio Alvarado, a right-wing evangelist. Take that Trump!