Carl Landicino wiped a bead of sweat from his head as he emerged from a small room into Founders Hall at St. Francis College in Brooklyn Heights to wave to 117 Democratic judicial delegates. The leadership of the Kings County Democratic Party was there last Thursday, including party leader Assemblyman Vito Lopez perched five rows from the back, shrouded in darkness.
Landicino beamed. As he raised his hand, delegates cheered and whistled. It was a rock star welcome for the civil lawyer: Brooklyn Democrats had just nominated him to be one of their six candidates on the November ballot to become a State Supreme Court judge.
“I have a lot of people to thank for getting me here today,” he said, hands gripping the podium. “I would especially like to thank the great Vito Lopez, without whose guidance I would not be where I am today.”
Lawyers and lower court judges seek out the 14-year judgeships, which pay $136,700 annually and preside over non-criminal cases ranging from slip-and-fall lawsuits to home foreclosures. The positions mostly go to those who play by party rules and have done their time in family, housing or civil court.
But Landicino jumped the line.
For five years, Landicino, who declined to comment for this story, has been attorney for the Kings County Democratic Party. And over the last 12 years he has made a career out of suing would-be challengers to the Brooklyn Democrats’ favored nominees for legislative and other elected seats.
He has knocked them off primary election ballots for infractions as tiny as a candidate referring to himself as a “state committee member” instead of district leader – titles that are interchangeable in other New York counties.
“He’s a great lawyer and you can’t deny that,” said Jacob Gold, a district leader from Flatbush. “This is his reward for putting in so much hard work.”
Lopez agreed. “His credentials are impeccable,” the party leader said after the meeting.
Manhattan attorney Matthew Cowherd, 35, has a darker view of Landicino’s accomplishments. He tried to run on a slate of insurgent candidates in Lopez’ Assembly district in Bushwick last year. Two months before the primary, Landicino filed a complaint with the state Board of Elections seeking to eject Cowherd and the others from the ballot, alleging fraud.
During a five-day trial, Landicino called in some of Cowherd’s petition-signers, who were public housing residents. Cowherd claims Landicino coached one of his witnesses to lie about the sex of one of the people soliciting signatures. Judge Caroline Demarest found the witnesses’ evidence to be unreliable.
“She admitted, during cross examination, that two men told her to say that she signed the petition for a man rather than a woman,” Demarest wrote. Landicino lost the case, and Cowherd and the others were allowed to run against Lopez – though they lost.
“That was enough for me,” Cowherd said. “The methods that Landicino employed were dirty tactics at best, and unethical or illegal at worst.”
In a tight-knit party organization, Gold and Lopez are not alone in seeing judicial nominations as prizes to be earned for loyal service to the party. Nearly 70 percent of registered voters in Brooklyn are Democrats, so whoever wins the nomination usually claims the seat.
But Landicino’s long record as what party dissenters call an “attack dog” for Lopez makes his nomination a bold example of the power of county organizations to fill the bench with judges whose top qualification is party loyalty.
“The issue is that party bosses still have the power to exclude qualified persons from the [ballot] line itself,” said James Sample, an attorney who served in the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice and has sued unsuccessfully to reform New York’s judicial selection process. “Rest assured the bosses use that power for patronage at expense of quality.
“Whoever controls the judicial convention controls everything.”
Lopez vehemently defended the process, saying Brooklyn’s judicial delegates are a diverse group that produces a Kings County bench with a substantial number of African-American and female judges.
“In that room, 65 percent were from minority backgrounds, and 75 percent were women. If we went through any other process, we wouldn’t have that,” he said. “Compared to the appointment system where Manhattan law firms don’t often have the sensitivity and concern for diversity, our convention is very fair and very open.”
He insisted: “This is anti-Tammany Hall.”
Yet the Brooklyn Democrats’ annual judicial convention runs like a machine. From a distance the proceedings look like democracy in action, as district leaders select delegates, delegates vote for the six judicial slots and murmurs of disagreement echo in the hall. But it’s a staged proceeding: The delegates read their nominations from prepared scripts.
That’s because Brooklyn’s Democratic district leaders – the most local of elected positions – have already decided on their nominees, meeting in secret the night before to offer their favorite candidates a position on the November ballot.
“Does everyone get what they want in democracy? No,” said Lopez. “Was it smooth? Yes.”
Landicino is a civil lawyer who lives in Westchester County but has roots in Canarsie, the base of the once-powerful Thomas Jefferson Democratic Club. His practice is not limited to election law: When Supreme Court Justice Jack Battaglia slipped on a wet spot in the Kings County courthouse and sought a million-dollar judgment against the city, Landicino represented him and reached a settlement with court administrators.
His firm, Borchert, Genovesi, LaSpina & Landicino, acts on behalf of banks in foreclosure cases. Gregory LaSpina, a partner, is also a court-appointed receiver for financially troubled Brooklyn real estate, bringing in at least $40,000 a year in fees.
Yet Landicino and his colleagues stand out for their work knocking would-be challengers off Brooklyn Democratic ballots. Last year alone, Landicino signed off on more than 20 cases against candidates he accused of faking names and addresses on their petitions or falling short of the required number of signatures.
Opposing candidates tell of being disqualified over minor technicalities. Tony Herbert was disqualified because he failed to have the correct seal on his cover sheet. Another candidate was struck in an argument over his residential address. Yet another fell off the ballot because he had anglicized the spelling of his Russian name on his publicity material.
Jeannie May, 57, a registered nurse, ran for district leader in the 46th Assembly District in 2008. May had no political training or connections. She knew that by running against a pre-selected Democratic candidate she would have a challenge on her hands.
“I didn’t expect the bullying and intimidation though,” she said. “When I was served papers by three heavy, muscular men in black shirts, I knew this was serious.”
May was knocked off the ballot, allowing Dilia Schack – the wife of Brooklyn Supreme Court Justice Arthur Schack – to win the seat unopposed. Landicino wasn’t officially the attorney behind it, but May said he attended every proceeding and sat next to the lawyer who was supposedly running the case.
“He was obviously the puppet master,” May said. “On every move.”