In a state that desperately needs a political overhaul and fresh blood, it's welcome news that some Brooklyn reformers are organizing an effort to confront Assemblyman Vito Lopez, who doubles as Democratic Party boss. As always in Kings County, the battle revolves around courthouse politics. Lopez recently jammed an unqualified crony named Pamela Fisher onto the Civil Court bench, in an unusually ham-fisted display of power that should disturb everyone. Fisher, who spent years as an employee in the assemblyman's social service empire, the Ridgewood Bushwick Senior Citizens Council, completed law school nearly two decades ago but has never practiced law. Her résumé includes a drift from one low-ranking government post to another and unsuccessful runs for City Council and Assembly. After 19 years of avoiding the practice of law, she suddenly landed an $85,000-a-year job as a clerk to Brooklyn Supreme Court Justice Mark Partnow. And with nine months of legal experience, she ran unopposed for Civil Court with Lopez's blessing, winning a 10-year term as a judge at a $125,600 annual salary. That has reform-minded Brooklyn pols and activists furious.
"Vito Lopez has turned the courts into a patronage mill," says the Rev. Taharka Robinson, an activcist and son of Assemblywoman Annette Robinson, a party district leader. "This was somebody who had almost no legal experience, and didn't even submit paperwork to the screening panel. But the county leader endorsed her," says attorney Jo Anne Simon, a Democratic district leader. This sort of foolishness was supposed to have ended in recent years. Following a wave of scandals that saw several judges censured, bounced from the bench and/or packed off to prison, the county organization agreed to have candidates go before a screening panel. The panels themselves are far from perfect. But they at least offer a semblance of honest review and enable the public to spot party manipulation.
Fisher didn't even bother putting her thin résumé before the panel, making a mockery of the notion of basing judicial nominations on merit. She also failed to file any of the required preelection paperwork showing where her campaign funds came from. Lopez says his support for Fisher is based on his capacity as a Bushwick-based political club leader supporting an ally, and was not an exercise of his power as county boss. That won't satisfy Brooklyn's restless reformers. Robinson is staging a protest in front of the party's Court St. headquarters at 1 p.m. today and will call for Lopez to quit. He may be joined by members of the New Kings Democrats, a group of young, pro-reform grass-roots activists. Last fall, the club ran dozens of candidates for county committee, slowly becoming party foot soldiers who are sure to rise in influence. "We're trying to build a new infrastructure," says 25-year-old Lincoln Restler, a New Kings vice president. The turmoil is welcome and long overdue. One way or another, Brooklyn is showing what the rest of New York State is learning: fixing what's wrong in Albany and City Hall and the courts starts with reforming politics at the grass roots. email@example.com