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Benched! Judge Removed from Election Case, Exiled to Bronx as Dem Party Power Struggle Heats Up in Brooklyn

Independent-minded judge transferred as Brooklyn Democratic Party machine looks for help from the the courts to ward off challenge from progressive reformers.

Theodore Hamm Jan 22

See update below.

Twice this past fall, Brooklyn Supreme Court Judge Edgar Walker issued injunctions that stopped the Brooklyn Democratic Party leadership’s efforts to crush the insurgency in the party’s ranks.

In early January, Walker, who is nearing the mandatory retirement for state supreme court judges (76), was reassigned to the Bronx. This week a third lawsuit against the Brooklyn party machine was transferred from Walker to another Brooklyn judge.

Regardless of the ultimate outcome of the current case, the maneuvering is a clear victory for the machine.

Many of the dissident county committee members are affiliated with New Kings Democrats.

In late October, Judge Walker ordered the Brooklyn Democratic Party to hold its annual meeting remotely. That move overturned the effort of party chair Rodneyse Bichotte to avoid holding the gathering at all. Although Bichotte and her legal team had claimed that a virtual meeting would discriminate against members who lack internet access, Walker deemed that position to be “merely a ruse for the leadership of the [party’s] Executive Committee to retain their authority.”

Bichotte’s next dubious move was to appoint 2,400 new county committee members without input from the existing 2,100 members of that committee. Here again, in mid-December Walker stopped the brass in their tracks, ruling that state election law “unambiguously” forbids such actions by a party’s leadership.

Many of the dissident county committee members are affiliated with New Kings Democrats, a progressive group that in the last few years has called attention to the lack of democracy in the Brooklyn Democratic Party. As the plaintiffs’ attorney Ali Najmi stated after Walker’s second injunction, “The Brooklyn Democratic Party has been abusing its power, undermining democracy, and violating the Election Law. It’s time for this to stop.”

Lo and behold, at the end of December Najmi was forced to file another lawsuit against the party, this time because of the actions of the brass in the Walker-ordered committee meeting that was held in two lengthy sessions. At the first, on December 16, insurgents pushed through a number of reforms that reduced the leadership’s ability to control votes through proxies and also insured more oversight of party finances.

One week later, now under a newly-appointed committee chair, former Assemblywoman Tremaine Wright (who got trounced by the DSA’s Jabari Brisport in the June 2020 primary for State Senate), the party leadership managed to reverse the votes made a week earlier. In his current lawsuit, Najmi contends that Wright not only was “unlawfully installed,” but that her behavior was “shocking.” He further states that Wright “shut down and censored discussion” and that she “unlawfully delegated authority to a biased Parliamentarian” whom party leaders brought in for the meeting.

Until January 20, the case remained on Judge Walker’s docket, despite his transfer to the Bronx. When asked whether the reassignment would affect Walker’s involvement in Najmi’s current suit, Office of Court Administration spokesman Lucian Chalfen told the Indypendent (via email) that Walker would “continue to handle the [Brooklyn] election law cases along with presiding over a Bronx case inventory.”

That statement was made on January 11. On January 20, Najmi’s current case was reassigned to Judge Richard Montelione. Chalfen has not yet provided an official explanation.

Montelione was first elected as a Brooklyn Civil Court judge in 2012, then was moved up to Supreme Court a few years ago. Unlike Walker, Montelione does not appear to have a clear track record ruling on election law cases.

In his initial run, Montelione defeated a machine-backed candidate, so it’s by no means certain that he will rule against the party insurgents. However, given that his current term expires in 2022, Montelione may have an incentive to play ball with the machine.

As the Indypendent has reported, judges who buck Brooklyn’s party brass can face drastic consequences. While the machine is not particularly adept at winning contested primaries these days, its ability to influence what happens at the courthouse remains its lifeblood.

Although the timing of his transfer seems highly questionable, it’s also a mystery how Walker managed to oversee Brooklyn election law cases for so long. After all, in 2014, it was Judge Walker who ruled that Zephyr Teachout’s name could remain on the ballot in the Democratic primary against Andrew Cuomo.

Cuomo, notably, was represented in that case by longtime Democratic fixer Marty Connor. In 2018, when county committee insurgents challenged the party brass at the annual meeting, Connor helped squash the dissidents. 

In the case now before Judge Montelione, Najmi is asking the court to nullify the actions taken at the second session of the annual meeting, when Wright presided. First scheduled for late September of 2020, the annual meeting of the Brooklyn Dems may not be completed before the middle of 2021.

Update (1/27): In the wake of the Indy’s story, the Kings County Supreme Court electronic filing site again lists the current case vs. the Brooklyn machine as assigned to Judge Walker. As of January 24, it remained assigned to Judge Montelione. See receipts here

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