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"Friend of the Court: Cozying Up to Judges, and Reaping Opportunity" New York Times
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Friend of the Court: Cozying Up to Judges and Reaping Opportunity

Friend of the Court: Cozying Up to Judges, and Reaping Opportunity

November 11, 2003
By KEVIN FLYNN and ANDY NEWMAN
New York Times



Ravi Batra practices the kind of law that does not come
with steno pools or 40th-floor conference rooms with views
of Central Park. His office is in a brick building in a
section of Manhattan known as Little India. His legal
pedigree is respectable but unremarkable. His clients tend
to be small companies or people who have been hurt in
accidents.

Yet for much of the past decade Mr. Batra has been a
particularly potent force in the clubby corridors of New
York City
courthouses. He played a role in picking State
Supreme Court judges. Lawyers seeking an edge in the
unfamiliar world of Brooklyn courts hired him as their
guide. Judges who controlled court appointments - where
lawyers typically manage the assets and welfare of the
elderly, the young or of troubled companies - gave him 150
of these, worth more than $500,000 in fees.

Mr. Batra's success was fashioned in part from long hours
and legal dexterity. But by many accounts it was built on
his keen appreciation for an unspoken truth: that whom you
know in courthouse circles can be just as valuable as what
you know. And Mr. Batra developed a particular knack for
getting to know judges and the politicians who made them.

He invited them to dinner and his home. He toasted them at
parties. He made the Brooklyn Democratic Party boss a
member of his law firm. And the boss, Assemblyman Clarence
Norman Jr., put him on the panel that screened Democratic
nominees for Supreme Court judgeships, a powerful position
since the nomination is tantamount to election in heavily
Democratic Brooklyn.

"He's very well known," said Justice Reinaldo E. Rivera of
the Appellate Division of the State Supreme Court, when
asked how Mr. Batra came to offer welcoming remarks at his
swearing-in ceremony last year. "Everybody knows Mr.
Batra."

Indeed, a review of Mr. Batra's cases and interviews with
judges and lawyers who know him provide a glimpse into a
seldom seen corner of the court system where cozy
relationships can play defining roles in who becomes a
judge and who benefits from the decisions that judges make.


In Mr. Batra's case, he took the tried and true tools of
networking - schmoozing, flattery, mutual back-scratching -
and practiced them to an extent that tended to blur, or
even ignore, the boundaries between the bench and the bar.

Judges who were his friends, or who visited his house or
who joined him for dinner, gave him appointments or
presided over cases in which he had a stake, according to
court records. Twice he was awarded fees that state
monitors later found unusually high. In one instance,
defendants who paid Mr. Batra $225,000 to settle his own
civil suit said they never realized he knew the judge in
the case as well as he did.

When Collegiality Tests Integrity

Of course, in some New
York
political and legal circles, the suggestion that a
simple meal between legal professionals could undermine a
judge's integrity seems naïve. Certainly, Mr. Batra thinks
so.

"The collegial meeting of lawyers on both sides of the
aisle with the bench is an absolute plus to the functioning
of the profession," Mr. Batra said in an interview.

The judges in Mr. Batra's cases said in interviews that
their decisions were made on the merits, and that Mr. Batra
received no favors.

For his part, Mr. Batra likened his behavior to that of
President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who used to play cards
with Supreme Court justices, he said, only to have them
overturn his legislation several days later.

"If you're a person of integrity, the question ends there,"
he said. "And if you're not a person of integrity, all the
appearances in the world don't give you integrity. So I
prefer substantive integrity than apparent integrity."

But experts say faith in the courts is built on such
appearances. Several years ago, after the fallout from one
of Mr. Batra's appointments, state officials decided to
explore whether such appointments were controlled by
politics. Their 2001 report found the system awash in
cronyism.

"Many of the recipients of multiple and lucrative
appointments in guardianship cases had connections to
judges, political parties or court-system personnel," it
said, "raising concerns that they were selected based on
factors other than merit."

Mr. Batra's name has surfaced again this year as District
Attorney Charles J. Hynes of Brooklyn investigates the
culture of the borough's courthouse. Prosecutors have
subpoenaed Mr. Batra's business records. They have sent a
cooperating witness into a meeting with him, wearing a
concealed recording device, to discuss whether money can
influence the judicial selection process.

Nothing incriminating came from the tape, and Mr. Batra,
48, said he did not believe the conversation touched on
such matters. His lawyer, Randy M. Mastro, said he has been
told that Mr. Batra, who has met voluntarily with
prosecutors, is not a target of the investigation.

The uproar, however, has taken a toll. Mr. Batra resigned
from the screening panel. Mr. Norman, who was indicted
several weeks ago on unrelated larceny charges, left Mr.
Batra's law firm. And in a severe indignity to a man who
thrives on access, the chief judge in Brooklyn, Ann T.
Pfau, told other judges that she will not take calls from
Mr. Batra.

Such scrutiny of how Brooklyn picks its judges would most
likely not have arisen if the candidates approved by the
screening panel had been uniformly good. But in the past
two years, four Brooklyn judges serving in the Supreme
Court, the state's highest trial court, have gotten into
trouble, including two who were charged with taking bribes.


Mr. Batra did not come by his political connections easily,
as either the son of a judge or the protégé of a political
leader. He was born in India and grew up in Queens. He
graduated from Pace University and Fordham Law School,
taught at Pace for a number of years and practiced law,
often with a certain flair.

Court submissions might be sprinkled with florid language
or exclamation points. His stationery was emblazoned with
his initials set against the background of a golden eagle.

His job at Pace ended in 1986 when the university did not
renew his contract. He filed a discrimination suit but
lost, at trial and on appeal. The appellate judge described
his filings as "raving and often incomprehensible."

But over time, Mr. Batra, a man with the practiced grace of
a professional diplomat, built his contacts. He served on
scholarly panels, joined the Jewish Lawyers Guild and the
Puerto Rican Bar Association, among other groups, and
relied on a personality that people describe as charming
or, well, forward.

In particular, he showered attention on judges. He praised
them in letters to newspapers. He invited them to his
Christmas parties. As an official of several bar
associations, he ran affairs where judges were given
Judicial Sunshine Awards - his own creation. The court in
his lexicon was "the Cathedral of Justice" and judges were
"jewels in the crown."

"Each judge that appoints you places his robes in your
hands for safekeeping," Mr. Batra said.

For lawyers and judges, the sharing of cocktails and
canapés at bar association dinners has long been a fact of
courthouse life. But Mr. Batra, according to several
judges, pressed for a rare level of familiarity. He roamed
the Supreme Court like it was his country club, they said,
at times visiting judges unannounced in their chambers, or
parking his car, with permission, in the courthouse's
reserved lot.

Some judges felt uncomfortable. Justice Michael L. Pesce
recalled the first time he met Mr. Batra. The lawyer
greeted him, he said, by kissing him on both cheeks.

One justice, Milton Mollen, who has since retired, said Mr.
Batra invited him to dinner at his home 10 years ago.
Several days later, Mr. Mollen began receiving calls from
other judges, he said, telling him that they would be at
the "birthday party" Mr. Batra was giving for him.

Mr. Mollen said he thought he was being used and told
people not to go. But he drove to Mr. Batra's home in New
Rochelle
. "I told him off and left," he said.

Mr. Batra denied Mr. Mollen's account and said the judge
had helped to plan the event.

An Appointment to Screen Judges

In 1995, Mr. Batra
reinforced his most important political relationship by
adding Mr. Norman to his two-person law firm. Mr. Norman's
chief function, Mr. Batra said, was handling
"introductions" that might result in new business. Last
year, Mr. Norman made $52,000 from the firm. This year, as
part of his salary, the monthly payments on his $80,000
Mercedes Benz were paid by Mr. Batra.

After he joined the firm, Mr. Norman appointed his boss to
the Democratic screening panel for judges. Mr. Norman says
he picked Mr. Batra because he is a good lawyer, an opinion
that other allies of Mr. Batra share.

"He has a very fertile legal mind and thinks, as we say,
outside the box," said Martin W. Edelman, president of the
New York State Trial Lawyers Association.

Nonetheless, Mr. Batra came to be viewed largely as Mr.
Norman's surrogate on a panel that critics contend
rubber-stamped the party's favored candidates, using
criteria that had more to do with campaign contributions
than legal acumen.

"There was a total lack of transparency to the process that
allowed the public to lose confidence that competence,
credentials and integrity were being evaluated in an
independent way," said City Councilman Lewis A. Fidler of
Brooklyn.

Mr. Batra's popularity as a court appointee picked up
drastically after he became affiliated with Mr. Norman in
1995, although more than half the assignments came from
Manhattan judges.

Yet some of the judges who selected him were hardly
strangers. Some had dined with him or been honored at
parties he organized. Good judges, Mr. Batra said, "make an
appointment to a person they know and trust and know the
job can be done rather than look one up through the Yellow
Pages."

A few times, Mr. Batra said, he made calls on judges'
behalf when they sought promotions, but only because they
were worthy. In 1998, for example, Mr. Batra said he tried
to help an acting Supreme Court judge, Harold Tompkins, win
a permanent spot by calling the Manhattan Democratic
leader, Assemblyman Herman D. Farrell Jr. In the preceding
18 months, Justice Tompkins had given Mr. Batra 10
appointments worth more than $85,000.

Mr. Farrell denied that such a call took place. Justice
Tompkins, now retired, said he did not know of any such
call.

Among Mr. Batra's closest friends on the bench, according
to interviews, has been Justice Richard D. Huttner in
Brooklyn, who has given him 11 appointments. In 1999,
Justice Huttner was one of the judges honored at a
$250-a-head dinner that Mr. Batra organized at the Harmonie
Club in Manhattan.

A year earlier, the judge had appointed Mr. Batra to
oversee the troubled Cypress Hills Cemetery on the
Queens-Brooklyn border as its receiver. In that capacity,
Mr. Batra set off a storm in 1999 when, citing their fees,
he fired the cemetery's existing lawyers, two politically
connected men like himself, and appointed his own firm in
their place.

The lawyers wrote to Democratic leaders complaining that
their years of loyalty had been disregarded. Their letter's
acknowledgment that appointments typically went to the
politically connected had immediate impact. State
investigators began looking into courthouse patronage. The
state attorney general's office asked that Mr. Batra be
removed as the cemetery's receiver.

Justice Huttner resisted for weeks before removing Mr.
Batra as receiver, but retaining him as the receiver's
lawyer. He resisted again when the attorney general sought
in May 2000 to have Mr. Batra completely removed from the
case. The judge said Mr. Batra had done nothing wrong. But
Mr. Batra on his own decided to step down.

The next day, the lawyer and the judge met socially over
drinks at a restaurant in the judge's Manhattan apartment
building. The next month, they were back together in court.
This time, Mr. Batra was representing Clarence Norman's
father, who was closing his home for the mentally ill.

Should Justice Huttner have disclosed their relationship in
court, given their friendship? Mr. Batra said no. The judge
did not return calls seeking comment. But it is the kind of
question that has arisen in situations where relationships
develop between lawyers and judges.

Perceptions of Partiality

The rules that govern judicial
conduct are broad in scope. They instruct judges to make
sure they do not allow their social and political
relationships to create a perception of partiality. But
just such a perception has arisen in a case where Mr. Batra
was friendly with the judge.

The case, in 1994, concerned a fall Mr. Batra said he had
from a swivel chair in his office. He sued the Brooklyn
company that sold him the chair. He said the fall had left
him with herniated disks, loss of height, worn-down teeth,
heart damage and frustration and anger that "leaks out in
certain relationships," according to court papers.

He sought $80 million - for his suffering, but also for a
patio bar and a game room with table-tennis and air-hockey
tables "to permit activity without injury or waste of
travel time," the papers said.

The case was assigned to acting Manhattan Supreme Court
Justice Diane A. Lebedeff, someone with whom Mr. Batra
became friendly. While she was hearing the case, they
occasionally shared a meal, according to interviews. More
significant, she gave him several court appointments,
including a 1999 case that state investigators found
troubling.

In that case, the judge asked Mr. Batra to evaluate whether
a wealthy 94-year-old woman with Alzheimer's disease needed
a financial guardian. Mr. Batra charged $400 an hour for
his work, nearly double the usual rate, state investigators
found. And when he determined the woman did need a
guardian, Justice Lebedeff gave him that post, too, with
the family's consent.

All told, he made $84,753 in fees paid from the woman's
assets. The investigators noted that he charged $100 for
each of 80 short phone calls and never listed their subject
matter.

Eight lawyers involved in the swivel-chair case say that
Justice Lebedeff never told them about these appointments.
Leonard Chipkin, a lawyer who represented the furniture
store's insurer, said she should have.

"In any personal injury case, credibility is an issue," he
said. "If I make a motion challenging the credibility of
the plaintiff and I've got a judge who trusts this man with
a great deal of money, that's something that I would have
wanted to know."

In an interview, Justice Lebedeff defended her conduct as
appropriate and impartial. She said she could not recall
whether she had disclosed the appointments in court or
whether she needed to. "If I had thought it was appropriate
to do so, I would have done it," she said.

Mr. Batra said the judge did not need to disclose the
appointments because the lawyers knew about the
relationship, having sat in a hearing about the woman's
case in court one day.

Mr. Batra ultimately won a settlement in the swivel-chair
case after six years. Defense lawyers said his case was
helped by several orders from Justice Lebedeff - one of
which was overturned by appellate judges who said Justice
Lebedeff had not objectively reviewed the history of the
case.

Mr. Batra said the defendants paid him $225,000. The facts,
he said, were simply on his side.

"The impartiality of the court process," Mr. Batra said,
"substantively cannot be toyed with."


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