Discover more from Vulgar Marxism
Jay Jacobs & the Nassau GOP Conspired to Keep Crooked Judges on the Bench
In New York, party bosses can fix the ballot to stack the courts with their chosen candidates. The ones they choose have troubled histories.
As Election Day 1991 drew closer, Nassau County Democrats were lamenting that local Republicans had lost interest in cross-endorsing judicial candidates, a practice whereby both parties allow the same candidate to run on both of their ballot lines. In New York, parties don’t nominate potential judges using primaries. Instead, they use judicial nominating conventions - arcane procedures inscrutable to outsiders and tightly controlled by the party machines, enabling them to dispense judgeships as patronage. Under a cross-endorsement, both parties nominate the same candidate at their respective conventions, effectively guaranteeing their election.
In an earlier era, when the satraps of the South Shore were amenable to conducting more of their affairs by consensus, Democrats were able to win judicial races with Republican support. Indeed, given the hefty enrollment advantage that Republicans enjoyed on Long Island in those days, it was the only way that they could. So it was an unwelcome surprise when a new GOP boss decided that while rule by committee was all well and good, rule by two committees was redundant. From the New York Times:
“In the past some Democrats had won court posts after being endorsed also by the Republicans. The Nassau Republican chairman, Joseph N. Mondello, ended that practice in 1984, and the Republicans have dominated judicial races since.
A spokesman for the Nassau Republicans, David Levy, said Mr. Mondello had long been uncomfortable with cross endorsements. ‘By cross-endorsing, you are really taking the selection of judges from the people and putting it in the back room for the political leaders,’ Mr. Levy said. ‘It's a hoax to say you have conducted an election when the voter goes into the booth and is confronted with a ballot with no choices.’
The Nassau Democratic chairman, John Matthews, said: ‘We are outregistered in both counties. If people vote strictly party line, how can we win?’”
Their answer was a tried and true Democratic strategy: wait 30 years and see what happens. In 2014, Joe Mondello - still the Republican chairman three decades later - was struck by an epiphany about the virtues of bipartisanship, just a few years after Democrats surpassed Republicans in voter enrollment. Cross-endorsements returned to Nassau County that year, and things quickly went to hell in a handbasket. Favor-trading between the parties became routine, with nominees selected on the basis of their loyalty to the machines or their personal relationships to party leaders. After Joe Cairo became Republican chairman following Mondello’s appointment as ambassador to Trinidad and Tobago in 2018, the pace of cross-endorsements accelerated rapidly.
But according to Jay Jacobs, Chairman of the Nassau County Democratic Party, this civic travesty is preferable to an even more chilling outcome: democracy. He says that because judicial candidates are not permitted to express their views on political issues, voters are incapable of making informed choices about who to support. “When it’s the judiciary, I will bet a lot of money that, other than the candidates’ mothers, no one knows who’s running or what they’re about,” he speculated last year. Jacobs says this leads to poorly qualified candidates making it on to the bench simply by virtue of their party’s fortunes at the ballot box, rather than their own merit. Better to let the party bosses pick the best people for the job in a more deliberative manner.
So how are they faring in their self-appointed stewardship of the judiciary? To answer this question, let’s take a look at two cross-endorsed judges who ran for re-election in Nassau County this year: William Hohauser and Conrad Singer.
In November 2015, William Hohauser was elected to the Nassau County District Court as a Democrat, defeating the Republican incumbent. District Court judges serve six-year terms, so Hohauser was up again 2021 and won re-election earlier this month. But his victory this time around was hardly as impressive. He ran on the Democratic, Republican, and Conservative ballot lines in a cross-endorsement deal, precluding any serious challenge. So it seems rather unusual that Judge Hohauser donated $25,000 to the North Hempstead Democratic Committee in April of this year.
State law forbids judges from making political contributions other than to their own campaigns for judicial office. A judge may also reimburse a party committee for expenses it incurs on their behalf. But considering that Judge Hohauser had no real opponents on the ballot, how much were Nassau Democrats really planning to spend on his campaign? Moreover, past rulings from the New York State Commission on Judicial Conduct raise questions about the timing of his donation.
In 1995, Ira J. Raab ran for state Supreme Court in Nassau County with the support of the Democratic Party. In a meeting with party leaders prior to the judicial nominating convention, Raab agreed to donate $10,000 to the county committee to promote its entire slate of judicial candidates in the general election. This was an estimate of what his share of the cost would be as a member of that slate, to cover expenses on his behalf both before and after his formal nomination by the party. Though Raab lost in November, he successfully ran for Nassau County District Court in 1997, and later snagged a Supreme Court seat in 2000.
This episode figured prominently in the Commission on Judicial Conduct’s 2003 investigation of Raab, which resulted in his censure over a litany of ethics violations, including improper political activity and threatening a litigant in court. With respect to the $10,000 donation to the county committee, the commission found that:
“It was also improper for respondent to make a lump sum payment to a political party, in part to cover expenditures already made…and in part as an advance payment for intended future expenditures on respondent's behalf. Such a payment, without appropriate receipts, itemization or other records to support the expenditure, was not a mere technical violation of the ethical rules, but a prohibited political contribution.
A judge may not make a contribution to a political party or organization, but may reimburse the party for the judge's proportionate share of actual and reasonable expenses made on behalf of the judge's campaign.”
So not only did the commission ding Raab for not getting an itemized breakdown of prior spending, it also found that advance payments for anticipated future spending are never permissible. This makes Judge Hohauser’s April contribution highly suspect. First, delegates to judicial conventions are elected in party primaries in June, meaning Hohauser made this contribution before his nomination as well. Second, the county committee almost certainly hadn’t spent such a large sum seven months before the general election, especially on a candidate whom they expected to enjoy the security of a cross-endorsement. And even if every penny was eventually spent on Hauhauser, an advance lump sum payment would still violate judicial ethics rules.
But there’s another detail that makes this case even more troubling than Raab’s. Even though he agreed to make his donation prior to becoming the Democratic nominee, Raab waited until after the party formally nominated him to actually cut the check. In its ruling, the commission stressed that this delay did not make the original deal any less inappropriate: “Moreover, an agreement by a candidate to make such a lump sum payment before actually being nominated inevitably conveys the appearance of a quid pro quo - which would, of course, be an egregious impropriety.”
If the mere agreement to make a $10,000 donation to a political party before becoming its nominee gives the impression of dirty dealings, then surely an actual payment of more than double that amount in a non-competitive race is all the more disturbing. Consider also that the chairman of the Nassau County Democratic Party in 2003 who took Raab’s money was none other than Jay Jacobs, who has held that post for 20 years. It defies belief that Jacobs, now in his second term as chairman of the entire statewide party, didn’t know that Judge Hohauser’s donation was prohibited as well. For someone in his position to be accepting unlawful campaign contributions that undermine the integrity of New York’s judiciary is irresponsible in the extreme.
In early 2007, Judge Conrad Singer of the Nassau County Family Court presided over a child custody case involving allegations of domestic violence. The mother and child were living at a shelter and being represented by its affiliated counsel. At the initial hearing, Judge Singer ordered the mother to reveal the shelter’s address. Her attorney, Nancy Mullen-Garcia, reminded him that state law prohibits the disclosure of the addresses of residential domestic violence shelters for obvious reasons. Judge Singer then threatened to hold her client in contempt if she refused to comply. When Mullen-Garcia stated again that this was unlawful, Judge Singer ordered her to summon her supervising attorney, Lois Schwaeber, to appear in court.
When the case was recalled a few hours later, Judge Singer told Schwaeber that he would hold Mullen-Garcia in contempt if she didn’t reveal her client’s address. But Schwaeber affirmed her colleague’s reasoning, noting that multiple state and federal statues prohibit the disclosure of such information. Judge Singer responded in the following manner, as described by the Commission on Judicial Conduct in its subsequent investigation:
“Despite having been placed on notice that counsel's refusal was grounded in law, respondent persisted in demanding disclosure of [the mother’s] address and grew increasingly impatient, discourteous and otherwise intemperate toward [the mother] and her attorney, Ms. Mullen-Garcia. When Ms. Mullen-Garcia still refused to reveal her client's address, respondent held her in contempt and imposed a fine of $1,000 upon her.
The enormous power of summary contempt should be exercised ‘only in exceptional and necessitous circumstances’ and requires strict compliance with procedural safeguards…Respondent's abuse of the contempt power and his failure to adhere to mandated contempt procedures constitutes misconduct warranting public discipline.”
Concurrent with its investigation of these events, the commission reviewed a second allegation of impropriety made against Judge Singer around the same time. In another child custody case, the judge visited a psychiatric facility where the child in question was being held for a mental health evaluation, and had unauthorized, unsupervised communications with him. The commission was harsh in its rebuke:
“It was also improper for respondent to make an ex parte hospital visit to a 14-year old youth, a non-party in a custody matter who was being held for a mental evaluation respondent had ordered, and to speak to the youth in the absence of counsel…Such an ex parte visit, however well-intentioned, was completely inappropriate and showed a serious misunderstanding of the role of a judge.
Even respondent's initial statement that he would visit the youth in the hospital and personally escort him from the premises if he did not wish to remain showed extremely poor judgment and overstepped the appropriate boundaries between a judge and a minor involved in a pending proceeding…[The] respondent should have realized that a judge is not a social worker and that such an extra-judicial meeting with a litigant's child would seriously compromise his impartiality and create the potential for suspicion and misunderstanding. By actually engaging in such ill-conceived conduct several days later…respondent showed extraordinary insensitivity to his ethical obligations.
Remarkably, despite the sternness of their language and the gravity of both offenses, the Commission on Judicial Conduct elected to impose only its lowest level of censure on Judge Singer, who suffered no professional or political consequences as a result. In fact, his career only took off from there. Just two years later, he was elected president of the New York State Family Court Judges’ Association, the lobby group representing the family court system. He went on to hold a number of other influential positions within the judiciary and the state bar association. In 2013, his colleagues named him Family Court Judge of the Year.
Yet as the accolades accumulated, so did more allegations of misconduct. In October 2015, Dr. James Gries - a licensed psychologist with practices in Nassau County and Queens - wrote about his experience being appointed by Judge Singer to conduct a forensic evaluation for the court in a child custody case:
“There was was a concerted effort made by Judge Tammy Robbins, Legal Counsel to the Presiding Judge on the case, Conrad Singer, to edit and suppress portions of the forensic evaluation report…This constituted what is referred to as ex parte communication, i.e. out of court contact, with me, the evaluator, concerning the content of my report, a practice that is strictly forbidden by ethical guidelines governing the conducting of forensic evaluations. To then attempt to coerce the evaluator to make changes to his report, thereby obfuscating the basis for conclusions reached, is to blatantly subvert the process.
Judge Singer did nothing to remedy the situation. He permitted the forensic evaluation report to be permanently suppressed, thereby depriving the Court of data and information needed to reach objective decisions about a child custody and parenting plan that would optimally meet the needs of the subject child. By doing so outside of court, he circumvented the customary practice of making such decisions about the admissibility of evidence within court proceedings.”
Adding insult to injury, Robbins and Singer then tried to stiff Dr. Gries on the bill for the evaluation. When he sent an email to Judge Robbins stating that he had referred the matter to “appropriate authorities” in light of the non-payment, she mistakenly sent him the following reply, which had been intended for her secretary:
Not only had Judge Robbins revealed herself to be incapable of operating the internet, she had admitted in black and white that she did indeed initiate ex parte contact with Dr. Gries to try to get him to change his findings. Dr. Gries reported this situation to several entities, including the Inspector General of the New York Unified Court System, the Commission on Judicial Conduct, and the Grievance Committee of the Nassau County Bar Association. Eventually, Judge Singer approved payment for the forensic evaluation, but admitted no wrongdoing in his behavior.
In a follow-up account five months later, Dr. Gries wrote that the only entity that ever replied to him was the IG’s office, prompting Judge Robbins to send him a letter of apology. Only she wasn’t Judge Robbins anymore, having lost her bid for re-election in November 2015. But she was still the principal court attorney for Conrad Singer, who kept her on in that role even after her defeat. But you know what they say: nothing lasts forever, including karma. Nassau Democrats renominated Robbins in 2017 and she was back on the bench in no time. In 2018, she was designated to the family court, and is hearing child custody cases as we speak.
Judicial misconduct is always troubling, no matter the circumstances. Still, it’s important to consider some additional context that makes these particular episodes of impropriety all the more alarming. Last week, Manhattan real estate developer Gerald Migdol was arrested on charges of campaign finance fraud over attempts to funnel money to Lieutenant Governor Brian Benjamin in his race for City Comptroller last year. Though no evidence yet suggests that Benjamin was aware of or a participant in the scheme, his proximity to it is uncomfortable. Just yesterday, it also emerged that LG Benjamin gave incorrect information on his background check when he was being considered for the post after Kathy Hochul’s accession to the governorship. The Hohauser donation only adds to the sense that systemic corruption continues at the upper echelons of power in Albany and the New York Democratic Party.
Judge Singer’s conduct is disturbing in light of the impunity that exists for powerful men accused of domestic abuse in Nassau County. Carrié Solages, a Democratic county legislator from Elmont, pleaded guilty to charges of disorderly conduct in 2018 following a fight with his girlfriend in which he grabbed her by the neck and forearm. The Democratic leader of Oyster Bay, David Mejias, was facing charges of breaking and entering into an ex-girlfriend’s apartment in 2015 before they were dropped after the girlfriend stopped cooperating. Mejias was also arrested in 2010 for allegedly chasing and tailgating another ex-girlfriend’s car and repeatedly cutting her off. Those charges were dropped as well. Judge Singer never abused anyone himself, but he has displayed outrageous levels of disregard for the well-being of domestic violence victims as a judge in family court.
In all cases, these men were rewarded for their behavior. Solages and Mejias retained their positions within the local party, which they still hold to this day. Judge Singer now sits on the state Supreme Court. At the center of it all is Jay Jacobs, who himself is allowed to retain his influence thanks to the breathtaking amounts of money he’s generating for the governor’s re-election campaign. Maybe some things do last forever.