When Nassau Republican chairman Joseph Mondello last month made a deal to cross-endorse judges for the first time in three decades, he said, "This is my profession; we need quality judges."
Yet 10 days later, the Nassau Bar Association put out a news release finding one of Mondello's Supreme Court picks, District Court Judge Anna Anzalone, was "not qualified at this time." Her nomination breaks a long-standing tradition in both counties that political parties do not put forward nominees without the bar's imprimatur.
Mondello had gotten word of the bar association's ruling Sept. 18, two days before the bi-county GOP convention, but never told other leaders of Anzalone's rating beforehand. The bar association generally informs only the party putting forward a judicial candidate.
Longtime Republican lobbyist Desmond Ryan said the controversy made all parties look bad. "You think in this age of transparency, political leaders would be doing a comprehensive due diligence . . . and work with the bar association to pick judges that are the best and brightest."
What makes the issue so significant is that state Supreme Court judgeships are the only elected judicial office in New York State for which there's no chance for a primary. And with major party cross-endorsements, leaders' hand-picked nominees are assured election. However, because she's 69, Anzalone's judicial seat will reopen for election next year when she hits the mandatory retirement age of 70.
Once candidates were picked, Nassau bar president John McEntee said, it was decided to move up the public announcement of the ratings, which are not normally made public until mid-October. Asked whether the bar's response was strong enough, he said, "I'm satisfied our response was appropriate." However, he added, "Given the potential for cross-endorsements, we may revisit our process to alert all parties of our judicial determinations" before conventions.
Mondello defended the choice, saying Anzalone has done a "wonderful job" in 10 years as judge, where she heads the sensitive veterans court, which handles ex-military members in legal trouble. "I'm at the small end of the world's largest funnel and I hear all the complaints . . . but I have not one about her," Mondello said.
GOP officials also said the bar has been inconsistent in rating Anzalone, finding her unqualified when she first ran for district court in 2003, but qualified when she ran for re-election six years later. Other GOP sources said the bar's screening committee is heavily Democratic and believes Anzalone's recent rating was retribution because her husband, George Truicko, leader of Laborers Local 1298, has strongly backed the GOP in the past.
"The bar association is important . . . but they are not the last word," Mondello said. "I would like to have approval, but if . . . games are going to be played, you have to adjust your sails."
Political consultant Michael Dawidziak said parties usually heed the bar, but "there's nothing ironclad, nothing immortalized" in state law about their role. He added the bar has its own internal wrangling, often based on personalities. "I'm told it can be very political," he said.
While unaware of Anzalone's rating beforehand, Long Island's two Democratic leaders -- Suffolk's Richard Schaffer and Nassau's Jay Jacobs -- would not criticize Mondello and said they would have done nothing differently had they known.
Jacobs, who has made no secret that he wants future judicial pacts, said Mondello was "under no obligation" to let him know of Anzalone's rating. He said he is looking to build a relationship "based on trust and respect" with the GOP leader. "I trust his judgment and defer to him on his recommendations as I'd expect he'd defer to me," he said.
But Paul Sabatino, former Suffolk chief deputy county executive, said such deals and leaders' cozy relationships with one another do not make for better judges. "Judgeships in New York are decided by how many envelopes are licked, petitions circulated, or election law cases are handled," he said. "It corrodes the system that is symbolized by the blindfolded woman holding the scales of justice."