Rent Control Victory + Judicial Elections Explainer

A note to our readers: The Thorn has switched from Mailchimp to Substack so we can keep delivering you local New York politics news from a socialist perspective with fewer administrative costs. Starting in January 2022 our new issues can be at along with how to subscribe. This website will serve as an archive of our past issues.

Local News

  • The State passed a major tenant protection bill that ends vacancy deregulation of rent stabilized units, significantly decreases the ability of landlords to raise rents after making capital improvements on rent regulated apartments, legalizes rent control outside of New York City, and more. The bill includes some protections for market rate tenants as well.
  • New York’s real estate industry is “in shock” after experiencing its first serious legislative defeat in a generation. They are threatening to sue the state, and banks that derive profits from financing landlords who deregulate stabilized units are already reporting losses.
  • The final renter protection compromise did not contain the most radical proposal that housing activists had been pushing: State Senator Julia Salazar’s Good Cause Eviction bill, which would have extended significant protections to unstabilized units. Housing activists intend to fight for this proposal and other reforms to protect unregulated tenants in future legislative sessions now that the entire rent control package will not sunset every four years.
  • The City Council appears likely to pass a bill that strengthens the public financing system for City elections in time for 2021. Comptroller Scott Stringer criticized the bill as an underhanded tactic by Speaker Corey Johnson ahead of their expected mayoral campaigns, as the bill will require Stringer and other mayoral hopefuls to return some of their big money donations in order to qualify for public financing.
  • Cuomo signed a bill eliminating all non-medical exemptions from mandatory vaccine laws, setting up a potential constitutional test.
  • The Assembly passed a bill enabling undocumented immigrants to receive State-issued Driver’s Licenses, but the legislation’s fate is unclear in the State Senate.
  • The Climate and Community Protection Act, which would force the State to eliminate net carbon emissions by 2050, is mired in negotiations and is in danger of failing to pass in this year’s legislative session.
  • With the 2019 legislative session concluding this Wednesday, lawmakers are racing to pass a number of progressive bills surrounding marijuana legalization, police reform, and more.
  • Layleen Polanco, a transgender woman who died in solitary confinement on Rikers Island last week, spent eight days in the hospital just two weeks before being held in punitive isolation. Just days after her death, another detainee, Jose Rivera, also died on Rikers Island.
  • The Mayor and City Council Speaker Corey Johnson reached a “handshake deal” over the City budget. While the full text isn’t final, the deal would be a 4% increase over last year.
  • Seventeen proposed amendments to the City Charter, including ranked choice voting, will be on the ballot this year as a result of the 2019 Charter Revision Commission’s work.


  • The Nation and New York Post covered the momentum behind Tiffany Cabán’s insurgent campaign for DA.
  • The Daily News and New York Post endorsed Gregory Lasak for Queens DA.
  • Former Queens DA Richard Brown’s staff are rumored to have recruited Melinda Katz to run for the seat in order to prevent Lasak from succeeding Brown as his health declined.
  • Antonio Reynoso and Rafael Espinal, both term-limited City Council Members who currently represent Bushwick, appear likely to face each other in the 2021 Brooklyn Borough President race.
  • Jonathan Soto, a community activist and self-described socialist, plans to challenge Assembly Member Michael Benedetto (District 82, East Bronx) in the 2020 Democratic Primary, citing Benedetto’s ties to President Trump and the Bronx Democratic machine.
  • State Senator Julia Salazar (District 18, North Brooklyn) joined four other New York State elected officials in endorsing Bernie Sanders for president.

IN DEPTH: Judicial Elections, How Do They Work?

It’s Democratic Primary season again, which raises the evergreen question: What’s with judicial elections? In this issue, we’ll look at which courts actually have elected judges and how those elections work.

In New York City, judges are either elected or appointed. While it might seem that being able to elect judges is a nice, democratic thing – the reality of New York City politics should disabuse you of that notion.

New York City has many layers of courts. The most common are trial courts for less serious crimes and low damage civil cases. For example, If you’re charged with public drunkenness, or want to sue someone for less than $25,000, you will go to a NYC Criminal Court or a County Civil Court. For more serious crimes or civil matters you will go to the New York State Supreme Court. If any issues arise at the trials in these courts, you can bring your appeals to New York State’s appellate courts. There are three layers of appellate courts. There are also various courts dedicated to more specific matters, including family court, bankruptcy court, Surrogate’s Court (for issues with estates), and others.

Out of all of these courts, there are only two that elect judges via conventional elections: the County-level Civil Court and the County-level Surrogate’s Court. Meanwhile, the State Supreme Courts, which are the most important trial courts in New York City, designate their judges through a bizarre process that will be addressed below. All of the appellate courts, NYC Criminal Courts, and Family Courts have their judges appointed. But each of the three that hold some time of election have their own rituals.

  1. County Civil Court: While there is only one Civil Court in each county, there are two different types of elections that can get judges elected to that court: county-wide elections or a municipal-district elections. That’s why voters living in different parts of, say, Brooklyn will find themselves voting in different civil court races. While everyone in Brooklyn will vote in the ‘county-wide’ seat, prospective judges running in municipal district elections only appear in their municipal districts (which are roughly the size of State Senate districts). Strangely, winning either of these elections will elect candidates into the same position on the exact same court: the County Civil Court. There is no such thing as a Municipal Court. Nevertheless, for various archaic reasons this system of splitting Civil Court elections into County-wide races and Municipal Court District races persists. With that said, the Civil Court elections are straightforward and similar to State legislative races: candidates petition to get on the primary ballot and the person with more votes moves on to the general election.

The Democratic Party exerts great influence on Civil Court races, where party leaders issue endorsements to certain candidates. Candidates for Civil Court races often spend years attending various dinners at political clubs around their borough in hopes of ingratiating themselves to party leaders so that these leaders will endorse them. Periodically, an “insurgent” campaign is run by a candidate who did not get the party endorsement; but, on balance, the judges you will see before you in any Civil Court are judges selected by party leaders. Party leaders have at various times been accused of selling endorsements to judicial candidates.

  1. New York State Supreme Court: In Supreme Court races, voters elect Judicial Delegates to the Democratic Judicial District Convention. In many districts you actually won’t see the names of people running for these positions because they are uncontested. Judicial Delegates have only one job: attend a convention during which it is determined who the county political party will select to be the nominee for State Supreme Court Judge in the general election. These conventions are very short affairs in which the delegates are presented with a slate of judges equal to the number of judges that will appear in the general election ballot. If there are four open seats, then they will be presented with four judges. In other words: the convention is strictly symbolic, and the actual decision as to who will appear on the general election ballot is made by party leaders at an earlier meeting. Not surprisingly, this process too has been rife with corruption and various party leaders have been accused of selling judgeships over the years. Supreme Court judicial races are one of the primary bastions of Democratic Party machine power in New York City.
  2. Surrogate’s Court: This brings us to Surrogate’s Court, which is possibly the most corrupt court in New York City. Surrogate’s Court handles issues with people’s estates when someone dies without leaving a will. In such cases, the Surrogate’s Court appoints an attorney to administer the estate. Attorneys that get appointed to these roles by Surrogate’s Court judges get paid a lot of money for, in many cases, doing very little work. As it turns out, many of the attorneys that are appointed are connected to the leadership of the Democratic Party. Essentially, the surrogate’s court judge gets to hand out plum jobs to the party leaders that helped elect them. If you Google “new york city surrogate’s court corruption” you will find a range of stories detailing unethical acts of Surrogate’s Court judges and the Democratic Party leaders that help elect them. The most recent is from last week’s Daily News, which exposed that the screening panels set up by the Brooklyn Democratic Party to evaluate Surrogate’s Court judge candidacies include the very attorneys that these judges end up appointing when they win.

In this month’s Democratic primary, you’ll be able to freely vote for the Civil Court judge, Surrogate’s Court judge, and delegates to the judicial nominating convention of your choice; however, the context in which you’ll cast that vote is a cesspool of party corruption and one of the remaining strongholds of Democratic Party machine power in local politics. In the next issue of The Thorn, we’ll dive into the state of this year’s contested judge races.

Contribute to The Thorn

We welcome submissions of in-depth articles, comics and illustrations from anyone in DSA. Whether you want to write for us or just know of stories we should be covering, please get in touch.

Subscribe to The Thorn

The Thorn is a weekly update on what's happening in local New York politics from a socialist perspective. Please sign up with us to receive an email every Monday morning.