Odor in the Court

By state law, judges get elected just like politicians -- a system so idiotic it's criminal. Will somebody please reproach the bench?

Equally amazing to Cooperman is that despite his transgression ("It's a stain on the entire bench what he did!"), Colby has managed a clean sweep of endorsements.

This is less remarkable to impartial observers of the race, who tend to look upon Colby as a talented newcomer who made one mistake, and Cooperman as "that nut running against Colby."

The alleged nut is having none of it. "You don't get a reprimand from the JQC for being overzealous," Cooperman insists. "You have to do something substantially wrong."

He doesn't want his campaign perceived as entirely negative, of course. "I plan to emphasize my positives," he says. "Eighteen years' experience. Community-service things. That kinda stuff."

The Colby reprimand, however, appears to be his best hope. Cooperman's record as a lawyer is hardly distinguished. He survives primarily on court-appointed cases. He has applied for an appointment to the bench three times and has been turned away. He has run for judge twice before and lost.

This time around he decided to be crafty. He positioned himself in a race against another county court judge, Raphael Steinhardt, then jumped into Colby's race at the last possible minute.

Colby, a frightfully earnest young man who looks as if he leapt from the pages of GQ, was crestfallen. He knew his 1993 reprimand made him vulnerable. But he felt his strong bar-poll ratings, and the fact that the State Attorney's Office had cleared him, would keep challengers at bay. He denies Cooperman's charge that he falsified records, and says he was merely trying to unclog the system, invoking state statutes that he thought allowed him to convict no-shows.

"I had him targeted all along!" Cooperman says.
He parks his car, slips on a rumpled blazer and marches inside, passing Colby's Mercedes with a doesn't-it-just-figure expression. Owing to the rain, the turnout is paltry A a dozen voters at best. They are all seated already. Cooperman decides to bite the bullet and pay.

"Better late than never," he announces, stepping into the banquet room of the Hong Kong Harbor restaurant.

"Better never than late in your case," hisses Susan Fried. A sharp-tongued consultant with a mop of hennaed curls and a tan that can only be described as crispy, she is seated with Colby, Loree Schwartz Feiler, and a few other clients.

Cooperman joins Victoria Platzer at the next table. "This feels like enemy territory to me," Platzer murmurs. She spends much of lunch revising her campaign literature with a felt-tip pen.

Cooperman speaks briefly before ceding to guest speaker Henry Ferro, a well-known figure in judicial circles. Six years ago Ferro ran a scathing circuit court campaign against Judge Ted Mastos, and won. He was later investigated by the JQC for allegedly verbally abusing people in his courtroom. He resigned his seat earlier this year and announced he was running for state attorney general.

Ferro's topic of the day: crime.
As the luncheon breaks up, Fried heads into an adjoining room. She is anxious to dish a little dirt on Cooperman. "He wasn't even a practicing attorney for six months last year," she whispers, drawing a sheaf of papers from an envelope. "I hear he's selling life insurance. What a weirdo."

Before she can elicit the dark meaning of these documents, Cooperman appears. Fried scurries away.

"You see the kind of miserable, vicious kind of personality she has," he says. "Maybe I have a thin skin but I went in there with a good heart and what the fuck does she do? She tries to make a fool of me. Lemme tell you another story about her. On the day I filed against Colby, I asked the election people to wait five minutes before they showed anyone, 'cause I didn't want to get bullied. Fried was on me like ham on Swiss. I didn't want to wait for the elevator, so I ran down the stairs and I heard her say, very loudly, 'He's an asshole.' Like some tart on the street. I mean, using such language. Whether I'm an asshole or not is none of the public's business. And I'm not an asshole."

Cooperman is happy, however, to discuss Fried's allegations. "I was listed as nonactive with the Florida Bar last year," he says affably. "The form they send out is so complicated, I didn't realize how much dues were, so I sent in the wrong amount. Isn't that hilarious?"

And the business of selling insurance? "Sure I did that. Why not? As a matter of fact, I wasn't much of a salesman. I was one of my only consumers."

Those issues disposed of, he revisits the Fried issue. "It's tough to have to see people like her," Cooperman admits. "And I wouldn't have to if I wasn't running. But no one's twisting my arm to do this. And let's face it: Being a judge is a cushy job. It is. Condemn. Spare. Condemn. Spare. You always know where your next paycheck is coming from."

The candidate falls silent for a few seconds. Then he asks a question.
"Do you think I'm weird?"
A few days later, at the fancy B'Nai B'rith dinner, Cooperman enjoys a last laugh in absentia. While he has excused himself from the dinner A and the twenty-dollar admission fee A he manages to enlist a representative to address the crowd on his behalf. A short man in spectacles and a beard, Derek Cohen speaks in a brisk British accent.

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