Also on the ballot: Civil court primary is another hot race

Robert Rosenthal, left, and Wendy Li are vying for Civil Court judge in a Democratic primary that will be on the ballots of many Downtowners, mostly on the East Side, as well as Soho, Noho and parts of Chinatown and the Village.

BY SYDNEY PEREIRA | Primary elections are just around the corner on Thurs., Sept. 13. The race between Cynthia Nixon and Governor Andrew Cuomo, of course, and those for attorney general and lieutenant governor are the most high-profile ones. But there’s also a more local judicial race that’s being followed with interest that will be on the ballot for Downtown voters.

Robert Rosenthal and Wendy Li will face off in the first primary election since 2006 for the city’s Second District Civil Court seat. The district stretches south from E. 14th St. and roughly includes the East Village, most of the Lower East Side, Soho, Noho, the South Village and part of Chinatown.

Voters will have the opportunity to choose between two lawyers with distinct differences. Li is a first-generation immigrant from China who has built a career in corporate law, with a degree from Oxford University and a graduate certificate from Harvard University. Rosenthal is a New York-raised criminal defense lawyer who has taken on cases that he says nobody else would touch.

Rosenthal has secured endorsements from 11 Downtown Democratic political clubs and all Downtown’s local politicians — except for state Senator Brian Kavanagh, who endorsed neither candidate.

Rosenthal told The Villager he has spent the past year speaking individually with clubs and local politicians. He noted that Assemblymember Yuh-Line Niou’s was a particularly tough endorsement to gain.

“If there was a [political] machine for me, I would’ve gotten a county seat with no primary,” he said. “If there was a machine, this would be easy. If there was a machine, I wouldn’t be sitting in a primary.”

Li’s camp counters that her focus is on the voters’ endorsement, not that of political clubs.

“I’m very proud of myself running this race as a woman, as an immigrant and as a lawyer,” Li said. “I’m free from any political connections.”

She later added in a written statement: “I feel like my time is [best] spent getting to connect with my voters, and hear what they are looking for when they go to Civil Court.”

Li hopes to diversify the bench, and she’s riding the wave of a surge of women across the country running for elected office.

“When I first started my campaign, people in the circle told me that people like me — [an] immigrant and speaking English with an accent — ‘you’re not supposed to run, and you shouldn’t run,’” Li said. “But I wouldn’t let anybody stop me. It’s about time for women to run for offices.”

Li spent 18 years as a corporate lawyer — currently she is a partner at Zeichner, Ellman & Krause — focusing on banking, administrative proceedings, capital markets, mergers and acquisitions, litigation and international arbitration, private-equity funds and real estate.

She’s also a member of Manhattan’s Community Board 9 (Morningside Heights, Manhattanville and Hamilton Heights), where she serves on the Landmarks Preservation and Parks committees.

“I have seen both sides of the coin,” she said, noting she has represented both landlords and tenants. “I have the experiences [in] complex civil law matters and also the personal experiences of understanding how difficult it is to bring food [to] the table.”

In her own neighborhood, she was an attorney on a case that reversed the illegal sale of a Harlem church worth $2 million after the pastor sold it for $175,000.

“As a judge, you face challenges every day,” Li said. “My commitment is to work hard and to be fair and treat everyone with respect.”

Though she now lives in West Harlem, Li immigrated from the Sichuan province in China to the Lower East Side when she was 28 years old after obtaining a law degree at Peking University. She would later graduate with degrees from Southern Methodist University, Oxford and Harvard.

Li wants to bring in more court interpreters for more languages, create evening court hours to help those who work during the day, and create appointment times for cases, rather than morning and afternoon block periods for when everyone arrives.

To accomplish all of this, she said that, if elected, she would have to work with the court administration.

“I think that’s very important, to have easier access to the court for the people and the residents in our district,” she said.

Rosenthal, who grew up in Brooklyn and currently lives in Stuyvesant Town, has worked as an attorney for 27 years.

Being a lawyer has “been a public service, but it’s been a public service on my own, one client at a time,” Rosenthal said, explaining why he’s running.

“I have been kicking open doors and screaming for people on behalf of people for all this time,” he said. “I’d like to have a courtroom of my own where I can open the door from the inside and nobody has to kick it open and where I can listen, so nobody has to scream.

“It should never be a part of a lawyer’s job to persuade a court that they have a real human being as a client with a real problem,” he added.

After graduating from Cardozo School of Law in 1991, he quickly found himself in the middle of a controversial case involving a woman named Margaret Kelly Michaels convicted of molesting 21 children at a New Jersey preschool.

Rosenthal was part of a defense team of lawyers under Morton Stavis, who died shortly before the trial, that helped free Michaels, revealing the egregious interrogation methods prosecutors used to probe children into saying that Michaels had abused them.

(Journalists from the Village Voice first pointed out the issues with the interrogations. Last Friday, the Voice ceased publishing.)

The Michaels case was the start of his career defending cases that were seemingly “hopeless” — cases nobody else would take, he said.

“My goal has not been to earn money or really to make people rich,” he said. “My goal has been to enhance and enrich the lives of others — of people who are pushed to the margins and who have voices that are not heard.”

He has freed people from prison who were found to be wrongfully convicted. In two notable cases Rosenthal cited, he overturned convictions in which men were wrongfully locked up in a robbery case and a “buy and bust” case with no evidence besides faulty identification.

“My clients,” he said, “are people who are not seen and are not heard because of where they’re from, what they look like, what they have or don’t have, what they’re accused of, [or] what they’re convicted of.”

Rosenthal also nabbed approvals from various screening panels, including the New York County Democratic Committee Independent Screening Panel, the LGBT Bar Association of Greater New York, the New York State Unified Court System Independent Judicial Election Qualification Commission, and the New York City Bar Association. Li has been approved by the New York City Bar Association, as well.

“This is the perfect public-service job for me,” Rosenthal said. “My entire career has been about serving the public.”

The primary has Li and Rosenthal door-knocking and canvassing in the dead of summer, and the judicial race is unusual for a typically nonpolitical position.

“It’s rare that people have a choice,” Rosenthal noted.

Li said that while out on the streets this summer introducing herself to voters, several people told her that they have never had a judicial candidate come up and talk to them while campaigning.

“I realize that although I am thrilled to be the first to speak to some of these residents, I hope I am not the last,” Li said. “After all, the Civil Court is the people’s court.”

This article has been corrected to reflect that Wendy Li received a graduate certificate from Harvard University and was approved by the New York City Bar Association. 

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