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Library Board Member Brian Levine And Library Trustee Esther Patterson Pose Happily In Front Of The Howe Library Fireplace
I got your back: New York state Family Court Judge Karen Burstein and Tom Keefe. Photo by Joe Putrock

Questionable Judgment

Published in Metroland, Vol 25 No 23,
June 6, 2002

Last Thursday, Tom Keefe, who is running for Albany City Court judge in the Democratic primary this September, picked up the endorsement of former senator and New York State Family Court Judge Karen Burstein.

“If you have to come to court, it is a very scary thing, and I would want a judge who recognizes that I am person, and recognizes that I have a right to be there,” said Burstein. “Albany would be very lucky to have Keefe on the bench because this is the kind of judge that he would be.”

Keefe is hoping to win one of the three seats available on the city bench. Last March, when Keefe announced his candidacy, he ruffled the feathers of Albany Mayor Jerry Jennings because the mayor had not yet announced his own third candidate to run with his two other appointees, Cheryl Coleman and William Carter. Jennings said he would not support Keefe and then picked city Corporation Counsel Gary Stiglmeier as his choice the third seat, creating a four-way race for the three positions. Now, for the first time since 1943, there will be a primary for the seat.

Jennings and his supporters have since tried to guarantee their preferred outcome in the primary by pushing a bill in the state Legislature that would alter the way judges are elected in Albany. As it stands, candidates running for a position on the City Court bench do not run for a specific vacant seat; rather, all contenders enter into a general election in which those who receive the most votes win. Jennings and a number of his allies—including city Treasurer Betty Barnette, Councilwomen Sarah Curry Cobb (Ward 4) and Shirley Foskey (Ward 5), among others—have written a letter to Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver encouraging the passage of Assembly Bill 11227. The bill would require candidates for City Court judge to specify which seat they are vying for. The bill would make Albany the only city besides New York City in which city judges are not elected in at-large elections.

If the bill were to pass, a candidate such as Keefe would have to determine which specific opponent he is willing to take on. His choices would be Carter, the city’s first and only African-American judge; Coleman, the city’s only female judge; or Stiglmeier, the party-backed candidate.

Jennings has said that he is pushing the law to protect Carter’s seat in the election; but many critics point out that Keefe is a frequent critic of Jennings, and that the administration has a record of trying to stack city offices with its own candidates. And some have taken offense to the fact that the move implies that the administration feels that an African-American would need special help to maintain a seat in the general election.

In the letter to Silver, though, Jennings et al. decried the criticism, saying “We understand that an issue has been raised pertaining to Judge William Carter and we believe this to be a feeble attempt aimed to distract attention from the real issue at hand. The sole purpose and reason why we have petitioned for passage of this bill is to eliminate the pernicious practice of bullet voting in a judicial election.”

“Apparently ‘pernicious’ is the new word,” cracked Assemblyman Jack McEneny (D-L-Albany), who said that he is not in favor of the proposed change to the judicial election process. “All of these people are talking about ‘pernicious.’ Certainly the vocabulary in the city has improved in this process.”

McEneny said that the issue of “bullet voting” (when voters only vote for one or two candidates in an at-large election) came from “out of the blue” and was never raised as a serious issue in past elections. Why, he wondered, are city administrators suddenly so concerned that it will become an issue now?

“There’s no precedent in upstate New York for this [bill], and it would only affect one city in upstate New York,” McEneny observed. “Also, I think that any time that a city goes through all this city went through with public hearings on whether we should change the city charter and how we should elect officials to public office—this never came up once. And now I keep hearing this word ‘pernicious.’ ”

As for Burstein, she noted at the endorsement press conference that to force such changes to the city elections process now would be bad public policy.

“I don’t like to come in and see judges already picked,” Burstein said.” It’s like the Soviet Union.”

—Nancy Guerin and Erin Sullivan