Editorial: Are Nassau judges just politicians in robes?

Editorial: Are Nassau judges just politicians in robes?

Perhaps Segal Blakeman, the wife of County Executive Bruce Blakeman, is the best-qualified lawyer in Nassau to serve as a family court judge and her selection as both the Democratic and Republican candidate in the fall has nothing to do with who she is married to.

Joseph Cairo, Nassau Republican Committee chairman, said Segal Blakeman has an “impressive background and experience, evidencing the credentials necessary to serve as an excellent judge in the Family Court.”

Elizabeth Post, executive director of the Nassau County Bar Association, said Segal Blakeman was found “well qualified” for Family Court by the association’s Judiciary Committee.

And Jay Jacobs, the state and Nassau Democratic chairman, said she was “found extremely qualified” by the party law committee.

Segal Blakeman works for Stone Studin Young & Nigro of Woodbury, where she handles matrimonial and family law cases.

She received her law degree from Yeshiva University’s Cardozo School of Law, according to her resume. She also worked as an attorney for the county’s housing department under former Republican County Executive Edward Mangano.

But perhaps Segal Blakeman is not the best-qualified lawyer in Nassau County.

Perhaps better-qualified candidates were overlooked and Segal Blakeman got the endorsement because she is the wife of the county executive.

We may never know because Nassau County voters aren’t even going to get the option of a second candidate.

Segal Blakeman’s screening took place after Cairo and Jacobs once again agreed to cross-endorse candidates for judge in elections that are supposed to allow voters to decide who serves on the bench.

In return for backing Segal Blakeman, the Republicans agreed to back Democratic attorney Eric Milgrim, a former Nassau public administrator, also for Family Court in the Nov. 7 election.

The Family Court seats opened up after Lisa Cairo and Stacy Bennett were elected last year to State Supreme Court. Cairo is the daughter of Joe Cairo. Small world.

Both Cairo and Bennett had run unopposed in the 2022 election. Along with 18 other judges selected by the party leaders.

Party leaders told Newsday the practice of cross-endorsing – and taking the choice out of the voters’ hands – is a way of making sure an equal number of Republican and Democratic candidates are elected to the bench.

Unexplained is why this is a good thing.

Wouldn’t county residents be better served by voting for whom they believe is the best-qualified candidate – regardless of party? Rather than being selected in backroom deals by unelected party leaders?

Cairo and Jacobs appear to be saying that people running for judge have a partisan agenda no different than candidates for legislative or executive branch seats. And they are evening the scales.

If this is such a good idea, why don’t they do the same thing for the county Legislature, county executive and Congress?

Jacobs in the past defended the practice of cross-endorsements by noting that judges are “not permitted to really campaign on any issues, so the public doesn’t really have a particular choice based upon issues like you would have in a normal election. The outcome was determined not by the individual, but by the ups and downs of that particular party’s success in a given year.”

Jacobs does have a point about Supreme Court candidates not being permitted to really campaign on any issues under state ethics laws.

But in exactly what election were Jacobs and Cairo selected to replace voters in making the choice over such crucial positions? Answer: none.

And it is not as if either party leader has distinguished themselves in selecting candidates.

Cairo is the person who screened and selected George Santos to run for Congress in the 3rd Congressional District. Twice. And Mangano, the last Republican county executive before Blakeman, is now serving time in a federal prison for political corruption.

We can better understand Jacobs wanting a 50-50 split with Republicans.

In 2021, with a 100,000-margin in registered voters, Democrats lost 13 of 45 city, town and county races including all four countywide seats led by Blakeman’s victory as county executive.

The only place the Democrats were competitive were the 20 judicial seats they cross-endorsed with the Republican and Conservative parties.

And then in 2022, the party underperformed across the state as Democrats overperformed across the nation. This helped give Republicans control of the House of Representatives and elect Santos to represent the 3rd Congressional District.

By controlling the selection process, the party bosses gain power over lawyers seeking to become judges. This is good for the party bosses but not a good thing for the judiciary.

The rules of judicial conduct in New York call for a judge to “uphold the integrity and independence of the judiciary.”

The code states that “an independent and honorable judiciary is indispensable to justice in our society. A judge should participate in establishing, maintaining and enforcing high standards of conduct, and shall personally observe those standards so that the integrity and independence of the judiciary will be preserved.”

It further states that “a judge shall avoid impropriety and the appearance of impropriety in all of the judge’s activities.” This bears repeating. Judges are supposed to avoid the mere appearance of impropriety.

How exactly does the selection of the wife of the county executive and the daughter of the Republican county chairman square with that standard? Or for that matter a party chair like Jacobs determining which Democrat is elected a judge?

There are legitimate arguments about the wisdom of electing judges.

But consider two reasons that the choice doesn’t belong with Jacobs and Cairo.

One reason no one hears about the candidates in Nassau County is that they don’t have opponents. The public just might have a reason to learn about a particular candidate if given a choice.

That’s the whole reason for political campaigns. Besides, even though voters may not have the chance to ask judges about their views on political issues, a candidate’s experience is not a bad criterion by which to judge.

For instance, you might just want someone running for a 14-year term that currently pays more than $200,000 a year to have actual experience as a judge – something that some party-picked candidates have lacked in the past.

A second reason is that the election of judges is the law in New York.

Electing judges in sham elections decided in backroom deals is not exactly a strong endorsement for judicial integrity or democracy.

Party leaders and their members bear much of the responsibility for this mess.

But so do the candidates for judge who accept the nomination of both parties under this system.

If nothing else, every candidate running for judge in Nassau should explain to voters why they don’t have a challenger on the ballot. And if they think it serves voters.

Otherwise, it would seem fair to conclude that Nassau judges are just politicians in robes.


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