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The Trials of Becoming a New York Judge

By Edward Yutkowitz

It’s a wet and gloomy morning in Abingdon Square. The stalls of the greenmarket are quieter than usual. There’s a notable absence of tourists.

But bad weather doesn’t deter the intrepid volunteers of the Village Independent Democrats (VID). Its members are out among their fellow Villagers promoting the judicial candidacy of Lauren Esposito, the club’s choice for New York State Civil Court in the June 27th Democratic primary.

Since January, Lauren has been campaigning non-stop in Lower Manhattan’s 1st Municipal Judicial District, which extends from the southern tip of Manhattan to 14th Street, from the far West Side to the East Village (excluding SoHo and the Lower East Side). “I like campaigning,” she says. “I love talking to people, meeting neighbors, and learning about the concerns in our community.”

Lauren Esposito and Assemblymember Deborah Glick at Abingdon Square. Photo credit: Edward Yutkowitz

A long-time resident of the West Village, Lauren has been a committed member of Village Independent Democrats, one of New York City’s oldest and most revered reform political clubs. The club’s support has been crucial to many successful political campaigns, both locally and regionally. Its members are activists who regularly volunteer for political causes and campaigns.

Being a judge is a prestigious position, but there’s little glamor on the campaign trail. You’re on your feet for hours, stopping strangers on the street and hoping a 10-second pitch will entice someone to take your literature and ultimately vote for you. It’s grueling work. The public has little idea of what it takes for someone to get elected as a judge, or for that matter what it is that judges do.

Lauren’s formal campaign started in earnest earlier this year, when she, like other potential candidates, began preparing for the independent screening panels organized by the Manhattan Democratic Party. These panels, which comprise some of New York’s most prestigious attorneys from bar associations and representatives of local community organizations, put candidates through a rigorous application process, intense reviews of their backgrounds, history, and qualifications, and tough interviews. Only the best candidates get a “most highly qualified” rating. Lauren was one of those. It’s no surprise: she brings stellar credentials to her candidacy. For more than ten years she dealt with myriad issues to ensure that rights of tenants in public housing were respected. “I take great pride in having helped the underprivileged,” she says. “There’s nothing more important than protecting the rights of the poor to quality housing.”

For the past year and a half, she has brought that passion to her role as an attorney in the busiest Appellate Court in New York State, reviewing criminal, family, and Supreme Court decisions—virtually the gamut of issues facing judges in New York. “It’s incredibly rewarding to be part of the process to help right a wrong and correct an injustice, especially in criminal matters, where people’s liberties are at stake,” she says.

Civil Court Candidate Lauren Esposito, Jamie Rogers and his wife, City Council Member Carlina Rivera, and District Leader Jennifer Hoppe take a break from campaigning on University Place. Photo credit: Edward Yutkowitz

Lauren has an eclectic education background, majoring in art and biology as an undergraduate at Emory University, and earning an MBA. It was during further studies at New York Law School that she found her passion for public service. “Over time I developed enormous respect for the law and how it could transform people’s lives for better and worse. It made me focus on what I could do to make the lives of New Yorkers better. It’s why I want to pursue public service as a judge.”

Lauren had to petition for signatures from people in her judicial district to ensure that she’d qualify for the ballot. The signatures don’t constitute endorsements, but the ability to collect them is an indication of the seriousness of a candidate’s efforts. Lauren’s campaign had to obtain 1500 signatures. Lauren and her team was out petitioning virtually every weekend in March, rain or shine.

Of course, she didn’t do it alone. It takes a village to run a successful campaign and Lauren had the help of her friends and volunteers from VID. Clipboards in hands, approaching strangers on the street for hours on end, they succeeded in realizing a hefty margin of 6,000 signatures, more than enough to meet Board of Elections requirements. In addition to VID, Lauren’s petitioning effort was aided by volunteers from Downtown Independent Democrats and UDO (United Democratic Organization). She’s grateful. “I couldn’t have done it without them,” she says.

Another little-known hurdle candidates have to face is the expense of running a campaign. Lauren has raised funds for her efforts. It’s a tricky pursuit, by law and ethics; she is not allowed to know who has contributed to her campaign—the public doesn’t always understand this.

Unless they’re attorneys, have court business, or are called for jury duty, most people have little understanding of the court system and what it means to them. In a nutshell:

* The Civil Court of the City of New York decides lawsuits involving claims for damages up to $50,000. The court deals with commercial, landlord and tenant, consumer debt, name changes, and contractual issues.

* The Criminal Court of the City of New York handles misdemeanors: generally, crimes punishable by fine or imprisonment of up to one year, and lesser offenses. It also conducts arraignments of all those accused of crimes, including felonies.

* The Supreme Court of the State of New York, the highest trial court in the state, has two divisions that hear felony and major civil cases.

* After cases are heard in the Supreme Court, they may be appealed to the Appellate Division, or possibly to the state’s highest court, the Court of Appeals.

Civil Court candidates generally run for office in a particular geographic area, but once elected they can theoretically be assigned to other courts anywhere in the city if the need arises. In Manhattan, rookie Civil Court judges are often seasoned with a year or two in Criminal or Family Court.

While the election process is inherently political, candidates realize that the integrity of the judicial system demands that judges be scrupulously apolitical. After all the time spent attending political events and establishing relationships with political leaders, they must sever their political ties after they are elected. After six months, they can no longer attend political events or participate in any activities that might be perceived as partisan.

Now that she’s on the ballot, and Lauren and her team have been out campaigning in parks, at public events, anywhere there are large groups of local residents who might, or should, have an interest in our judicial system, the most recurring of the endless questions Lauren has been asked regards why she wants to be a judge. “It’s the natural culmination of my life’s work. I’ve dedicated my entire legal career to serving the public,” she says. “I love the law. And I love working on behalf of the people of New York.”

In recognition of her professional experience, character, and commitment to democracy, Lauren has been endorsed by Representative Jerrold Nadler, Assemblymember Deborah Glick, Manhattan Borough President Mark Levine, city council members Erik Bottcher and Carlina Rivera, several retired justices, district leaders, community leaders, and all the major downtown political clubs.

Lauren will be campaigning until June 27th, Primary Day. “It feels great to be meeting and greeting people. It’s really special to be out campaigning with members of VID and my other friends. I’m overwhelmed by all the support I’ve had, both politically and from people I’ve met on the street. If people see me campaigning, I hope they’ll come by and say hi.”

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