In Brooklyn this year, 11 candidates are running for just five civil court judge positions. Five of them have been officially endorsed by the Kings County Democratic Party. Another five have been assembled on an alternative slate by journalist and political operative Gary Tilzer. An eleventh is running on her own.
Tilzer told the Village Voice he assembled his roster by asking friends of friends for suggested candidates. His main aim is to expose the patronage within the Democratic Party—”how the county organization just picks judges and how the public doesn’t have any say.” According to the Voice, his argument has merit: “Any young attorney who aspires to the bench knows that getting active in the local political club and sending donations to party-favored candidates or the machine’s housekeeping account is a prerequisite to getting ahead,” writes the Voice’s Ross Barkan——though others strongly disagree and say the races are always open and frequently competitive.
Four of the five candidates on the alternative slate also boycotted the Democratic Party’s Judicial Screening Committee test. Candidate John O’Hara argues that the test is another instance of corruption, with lawyers on the committee expecting favors from the judges they deem fit, though the lawyers deny that’s the case. The same four also boycotted the Brooklyn Bar Association’s screening test. The five party-packed candidates as well as alternative slate candidate Isiris Isela Isaac participated in both tests, and were all deemed qualified in both. The last candidate, Ellen Edwards, was deemed “Not Approved” by the Brooklyn Bar Association and it was unclear by press time if she participated in the Democratic Party’s Judicial Screening Committee test.
Whether you agree with Tilzer’s critique of party patronage or not, ultimately on September 12 Brooklyn voters will have to pick the candidates they think would do the job best. That job involves presiding over civil court cases involving smaller-scale financial disputes, but civil court justices can also be assigned to other courts such as criminal court, with the power to make serious decisions about liberty and punishment, or to family court, where issues of custody and adoption are heard.*
Here are some facts to know about each of the eleven candidates.
The Democratic Party’s Slate
1. Robin K. Sheares
•Incumbent, has served since 2008, presiding over civil and criminal cases.
•Is known affectionately as the “Community Judge” for her services outside the courtroom, including her participation in “Meet the Judges,” an outreach program in which judges educate the public about the court system, and has received awards for her community work. She says getting to know constituents outside the courtroom helps those constituents to “feel more comfortable, self-assured, and capable of presenting their arguments inside the courtroom,” according to Kings County Politics.
•Emphasizes her belief in “hearing out each side before arriving at a decision,” according to Kings County Politics.
•Was transferred from Family Court to Brooklyn Civil Court in 2010 for unknown reasons.** An anonymous source alleged she was transferred because of improper and biased handling of a controversial court case, according to The Daily News.
2. Frederick C. Arriaga
•Incumbent since 2008. Has worked in criminal court, as acting-justice of Brooklyn Supreme Court, and now as a Screening Treatment Enhancement (STEP) Judge. The STEP program allows first-time offenders with drug charges the opportunity to seek treatment instead of going to jail, according to Kings County Politics.
•Tells Kings County Politics that in being a judge; “You’re basically dealing with someone’s liberty. That’s a huge responsibility that you have to take very seriously” and that in his role as a STEP judge, “A lot of what I do is motivate. And that takes two forms, one is commending people and acknowledging and rewarding people for making the right choices. And then for the people who are making the wrong choices, we have to hold them accountable for it.”
•Prior to becoming a judge, served as an attorney serving low income tenants, seniors, persons with disabilities and others at the Legal Aid Society and South Brooklyn Legal Services, according to Kings County Politics.
3. David C. Pepper
• Attorney and for over twenty years has served as Principal Law Clerk to Judge Martin Solomon. (Solomon was a Civil Court judge from 1996 through 2003, and later served as a Justice of the Supreme Court, of the Appellate Term, and of the Commercial Division of the Supreme Court.)
•Became a clerk in 1988. Handled felonies during the height of the crack epidemic, according to his website.
• Prior to serving as a law clerk, worked for different firms on commercial litigation, trust, real estate.
•Told Kings County Politics that he’ll work to ensure “those who cannot afford adequate legal representation have just as much of an opportunity to prove their case as those who can” and “will also try to prevent underrepresented litigants from signing off on settlements that they can’t afford.”
•Was found “highly qualified” by the Independent Judicial Election Qualification Commission of the Appellate Division, Second Department, to be a judge of the county court.
4. Connie M. Melendez
•Attorney and for the past seven years Principal Law Clerk for Justice Marsha Steinhardt of NYS Supreme Court Kings County, where she’s worked on medical malpractice, negligence, foreclosure actions—with an effort, she says, to keep homeowners in their homes.
•Began as a social worker working with children in crisis, then for New York City Corporation Counsel as a medical malpractice attorney on behalf of hospitals and physicians employed by New York City. Also worked in the city’s Real Estate Condemnation and Certiorari Division, according to her website.
•Mentors middle, high school and college kids and co-founded the The Brooklyn Legal Pipeline Program.
•Told Bklyner.com, “On a personal level, I’m in-tune with the Brooklyn experience and Brooklyn neighborhoods. My experiences as an immigrant from a working class family, and my education is also something that I share with the community. I’m on the Puerto Rican Bar Association, and do community outreach. I’ve been endorsed by the citywide LGBT organization.”
5. Patria Frias-Colon
•Serves as Brooklyn Borough Chief for the New York City Law Department’s Family Court Division, handling the prosecution of juvenile crimes and interstate child support cases according to The Brooklyn Eagle. Has served in the New York City Law Department since 2009.
•Works with the Crossover Youth Practice Model, which helps to stop members of the child welfare system from entering the juvenile justice system, according to Kings County Politics.
•Prior, served as counsel to NYC Department of Education and to the Chancellor.
•Also worked as Assistant District Attorney under DA Charles Hynes, working on domestic violence cases.
•Grew up and still lives in Bushwick, and noted to the Brooklyn Eagle that she would be the first Dominican elected to the Kings County Civil Court.
•In March received a Legal Excellence Award from the District Attorney’s office.
The Tilzer Slate
6. Patrick J. Hayes
•Attorney with his own law office.
•Previously worked as an assistant district attorney under Hynes for four years in the 1990s.
7. Isiris Isela Isaac
•For the past 13 years, Principal Court Attorney at New York State Unified Court System, working on felony and criminal cases.
•Previously served as council for District Council 37 (the public employee’s union) and Brooklyn Legal Services Corporation A. Also advocated for clients to city agencies and educated community organizations about HIV legal issues.
•On her LinkedIn profile, emphasizes her work work to assist people living with HIV/AIDS with immigration and housing cases and says this was the work she found most gratifying.
•On her campaign website, notes a variety of other community service work she has done, including serving on the board of the social services nonprofit Hope City Empowerment Center and the Center for Anti-violence Education, among other activities.
•Also serves as a Small Claims Court Arbitrator with the New York City Civil Court deciding civil cases.
8. Thomas J. Kennedy
•Attorney with 21 years of experience.
•According to his campaign website, has represented seniors in cases against drug manufacturers, clients forced to pay high prices “due to illegal monopoly of merchandise by large corporations or other companies”, clients “defrauded by corporations into buy stocks of a corporation based on false information designed to sell the stocks at a high price,” and representing tenants sued by landlords.
•Pro bono work assists Small Business Owners.
•According to his website, passed the Certified Public Accounts exam, “which helps him in understanding the complex financial litigation in which he specializes.”
9. Sandra Elena Roper
•Civil Rights lawyer, hospital pharmacist, and community advocate who is known as the woman with “Velvet Gloves” and “Steel Balls,” according to her campaign website.
•According to her website, in 2001 became the first African American Latina to run for Brooklyn District Attorney (against Charles Hynes). She received an impressive 36 percent of the vote in 2001.
•After running against Hynes, Brooklyn charged her with felony theft of a client—what Roper says was an attempt by Hynes to disbar her. She repaid a former client $9,000 and the case against her was dropped, according to The New York Times.
•According to her website, has fought against “predatory lending, race and sex discrimination, police excessive force…unfair trade practices against local pharmacies” and for “voting rights.” Also served the community, holding a NAAACP-Brooklyn Legal clinic, creating the “Justice Card” and “Justice Card Hotline” to provides guidelines for residents about what to do when the police stops or arrests them, and drafted legislation to protect seniors from debt collectors called the Decatur Stuyvesant Seniors Bank Restraint Bill.
•Previously worked as a poverty law associate with Bedford Stuyvesant Legal Services. Established her own practice in 1990. Has also served as a Civil Court Attorney.
10. John K. O’Hara
•Was prosecuted by former District Attorney Hynes for voting fraud and convicted, had his license revoked until a state judicial committee found Hynes had unfairly prosecuted him in a political vendetta, and had his conviction overturned earlier this year after 20 years. Tells the Brooklyn Daily, “I bring a perspective that nobody has ever seen before.”
•Ran twice for City Council and three times for Assembly in the 1990s, including against Hynes allies, and has also backed candidates who challenged Hynes allies like Roper, according to The Brooklyn Paper.
Running on Her Own
Ellen E. Edwards
•Has in her lifetime worked on criminal defense, on behalf of both landlords and tenants in housing court, on contested trials in surrogate’s court; on guardianship matters, and as a mediator.
•For about 27 years has held her own private practice, working on criminal defense, estates, real estate, and also pro-bono work, according to NYC Politics.
•According to NYC Politics, also does community work like attend health fairs, serve as a “guardian ad litem” or someone who assists incapacitated people in court.
•Emphasizes her efforts to help tenants, protects seniors and save homeowners to Kings County Politics.
•Says she will establish a night court so people don’t need to miss work for court, restore independence of the judiciary from other branches (in reaction to Trump’s desire to conflate them), improve signage, technology and translation services, in the courts, bring more community courts in neighborhoods, and add more social workers to the court system, according to Kings County Politics and NYC Politics.
*Correction: Previously stated that the civil court deals with divorce, custody, adoption, and housing. Those matters are actually dealt with in other courts.
**This section was clarified after initial publication.