Rick Brand is a longtime Newsday reporter who writes about politics and government on Long Island.
While selection of judicial candidates normally draws little interest beyond a judge's own family, backroom wrangling over the state Supreme Court nominations is heating up and likely will become intense by the mid-September nominating conventions.
Fueling backroom intrigue are the surprise departures of the state's No. 2 judge, A. Gail Prudenti, daughter of the late former Suffolk GOP chairman Anthony Prudenti, and appellate Judge Peter Skelos, brother of embattled former State Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos. The vacancies make political cross-endorsements more likely.
"It's easier to make a deal when there's more to give," said Michael Dawidziak, a veteran political consultant who often works for Republicans. "That way everyone can walk away happy."
What makes state Supreme Court races unusual is that, unlike district, family and county courts where candidates are free to run in any party's primary, state Supreme Court nominations are solely the bastion of party leaders because state law permits no primaries.
In Suffolk, those nominations also could bring a sea change at the top of the Republican Party, given speculation that county chairman John Jay LaValle and Islip Republican leader Frank Tantone may be in line to run for judicial posts.
If the leaders win election, it would make Brookhaven GOP chairman Jesse Garcia the top contender to replace LaValle as county chairman and create a scramble for Islip GOP chair.
Incumbent GOP Judge Emily Pines also is expected to be renominated.
But Suffolk Conservative Party officials remain a potent force because the minor party can attract 10 to 12 percent of the vote on their ballot line. Suffolk Conservatives also have a 28-14 edge over Nassau Conservatives in judicial convention delegates, giving them control over who the minor party will back for the bicounty Supreme Court judgeships. Also, the Suffolk GOP can't afford to anger Conservatives, whose backing is vital in other races.
However, Nassau GOP chairman Joseph Mondello has made it a mission to thwart Edward Walsh, Suffolk Conservative chairman, after giving up two judgeships to the minor party in 2013. His concerns, sources say, have only grown, since Walsh was indicted in March on federal charges of theft of government funds and wire fraud. Walsh has maintained his innocence and rejected a plea bargain offered by federal prosecutors.
Suffolk Conservatives already have put forward Howard Heckman for District Court. He is a former assistant district attorney, a veteran Supreme Court law clerk and the future father-in-law of county Conservative Party secretary Mike Torres, but stands little chance on a single party line. But making Heckman a Supreme Court candidate could allow the minor party to back GOP District Court candidate Tara Scully, daughter of Peter Scully, Suffolk's deputy county executive.
Enmity toward Walsh prompted Mondello for the first time last year to make a two-year pact with Nassau Democratic chairman Jay Jacobs. Under that deal, the GOP got two judges to the Democrats' one, and Democrats will get a 2-1 edge this year. Democratic Nassau County Court Judge James McCormack is slated for one of the nominations, but the other two have yet to be named.
Mondello and Jacobs have met over Skelos' vacancy and expect an agreement. "We both see the benefits of cooperating to find a qualified candidate for the bench we can agree on," Jacobs said. Mondello said, "We've had good conversation and expect a meeting of the minds."
Meanwhile, party sources say LaValle and top Conservative officials have begun to huddle with Suffolk Democratic chairman Richard Schaffer, though the leaders decline to comment on talks.
Schaffer, however, said he has a "deep bench" of former and current judges who are qualified for Supreme Court. "I'm open to anything," Schaffer said. "I work with anybody to elect qualified judges."