Wednesday, September 19, 2012

A Better Way To Pick New York Judges


Fix the state's broken judicial conventions


Just when New Yorkers may have thought that the selection process for determining who will run for office in November was over, please note: Political primaries may be over, but more is yet to come.

Critically important decisions will soon be made about who gets to appear on the ballot as judicial candidates for vacancies on the state Supreme Court, a vitally important court which hears significant civil cases, divorce, separation and annulment proceedings, and New York City criminal prosecutions of felonies.

How do the powers that be decide who may run for judge? The process isn’t pretty. It’s politics in the worst sense of the word.

According to our election law, political parties have the right to choose who will be designated as their standard bearers for these vacancies on the bench at their conventions. And so, from Sept. 18 through Sept. 24, they’ll do just this. This year, there are scores of Supreme Court vacancies all across the state and a dozen in New York City alone. And that doesn’t take into account judges whose 14-year terms are expiring.

So what do the conventions feel like? Are they open affairs where voters can witness ideas being presented and decisions being made? If only.

Unlike the recent, prime-time national party conventions, New York’s judicial conventions are opaque, brief and dominated by local county party leaders. And because in many judicial districts (including in most of New York City) one political party dominates, whoever is nominated is likely to be the only choice voters have in November.

Over and over again, the public gets shut out. Insiders rule. Merit takes a backseat. And connections get rewarded.
Under existing law, county political parties could initiate reforms of the system now. They could make the judicial convention system more transparent, democratic and focused on merit.

And some have taken steps in the right direction. But most have not, and delegates at those conventions too often act as rubber stamps for leaders who place cronies and relatives on the ballot.

This is terrible news for the thousands of people who find themselves at the receiving end of justice administered by judges hand-picked by leaders whose primary concern is maintaining their own political power.

Eventually, we need an appointive system — which would use a qualification commission to determine the best judicial candidates. That’s the type of system voters approved many years ago for the selection of judges for New York’s highest court, the Court of Appeals. However, this change — amending the state Constitution — would require a very lengthy process.

We cannot afford to wait for reform.

The state Legislature should provide New Yorkers with a better system of nominating candidates now. This would entail amending the election law to provide for the establishment in each judicial district of an independent judicial qualification commission, which would evaluate the qualifications of Supreme Court candidates and recommend a limited number of most qualified candidates for each vacancy, to be considered by delegates to the judicial conventions.
In addition, because delegates should actually make decisions independent of their county leader, the Legislature should:

l set the date of the elections of judicial delegates long before the date of the conventions, to allow for legitimate public scrutiny;

l reduce the number of signatures required on delegate designating petitions to encourage independent citizens to run; and

l give delegates the opportunity to hear each candidate address the conventions, to begin transforming an insider game into one that values merit more.

If we are to going to continue to elect justices to the New York’s most important courts, this is the least we can do.
Williams is chairman of the Fund and Committee for Modern Courts, a nonpartisan statewide organization.

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