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To Elect or Appoint a Judge?
May 4th, 2006

In January, a federal court judge, John Gleeson, ruled (pdf format) that New York’s process of choosing Supreme Court Judges violates voters’ and candidates’ rights by giving too much power to county party leaders. (Wonkster summarized the reactions around the city at the time.)

In New York City, there are a variety of methods used to select different kinds of judges, ranging from mayoral appointments to direct elections. For a list of all judgeships in the state and their means of selection, click here.

While a new method for selecting Supreme Court Judges awaits an appeal, a coalition of good government groups (including Citizens Union, the sister organization of Gotham Gazette’s publisher) held a panel discussion about how best to pick judges.

Many advocates prefer an appointive system, or “merit selection,” over elections. A member of the audience during the discussion said that it is impossible to find information on judges when attempting to make an informed vote.

But Paul Wooten, a civil rights attorney and former candidate for Brooklyn District Attorney, said that “merit selection” leads to a lack of diversity, and cited Governor George Pataki’s appointments: Only one African American and one Latino serve on the 22-member bench for the second circuit, which includes Queens, and also Brooklyn, whose population has more African Americans and Latinos than whites.

But electing judges won’t necessarily improve diversity, according to an argument put forth on the Web site of the Fund for Modern Courts, which argues that outside of the city, the election of women and minorities to the bench is very difficult.

And Deborah Goldberg, director of the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center – which published a study (pdf format) on diversity on the Supreme Court bench, showing it to be severely lacking – posits that appointive systems can result in diversity if those appointing care about diversity.

There are other challenges to a system of elections, Goldberg argued: In order to provide voters with a real choice, they would have to be publicly financed, and the districts would have to be smaller, so that the costs of running would be less.

Michael Cardozo, Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s chief lawyer, ultimately supports merit selection across the board, but sees it as legally and politically unfeasible.

As a practical solution, he has proposed a hybrid system, where an independent commission (pdf format) would screen candidates, producing a short list of recommendations from which party leaders would choose their party’s nominee.

Joel Jacobsen, an Assistant Attorney General in New Mexico, writes on his personal blog, Judging Crimes, “The wonder isn’t that both systems sometimes produce clunkers. It’s that sometimes they don’t.”

By on May 4, 2006, 5:39 am
In category: Albany,Civil Rights,Demographics,Electoral Politics,Governing,Law | 4 Comments »

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4 Responses to “To Elect or Appoint a Judge?”

  1. Larry Littlefield Says:
    May 4th, 2006 at 7:32 am

    I say let the State Court of Appeals appoint and, if necessary, remove judges, including replacements on that court.

    But let the public, once every four years, have an opportunity to remove the entire Court of Appeals by recall vote, with a 2/3 vote required. In that case, members of the highest court would be appointed by the Governor and Legislature.

    Voters are not in a position to know if some is or could be a good judge, but are in a position to know if the system has gone disasterously wrong. Otherwise, appointment is the way to go.

    The current system, with the highest court appointed but lower level judges elected, is like having elections for the local beat cop but an appointed Mayor.

  2. Gotham Gazette - Albany Matters » Blog Archive » Indicted — And Re-elected Says:
    August 28th, 2006 at 10:31 pm

    [...] The latest in a procession ofindictments and convictions is Efrain Gonzalez, a Bronx State Senator. On Friday, he was charged with mail fraud. Meanwhile, his election seems reassured. Ada Smith, a Queens State Senator freshly convicted of throwing coffee in the face of a staffer and also facing new investigations, was competing against a former City Councilmember charged this year with sexual harassment, until he was knocked off the ballot. But Brooklyn tops the list of problems. Assemblywoman Diane Gordon was recently caught on tape extorting a bribe from a developer, but has no serious competition in her election, leaving the Democratic Party basically to appoint her successor if convicted. State Senator Kevin Parker was convicted of misdemeanor for assaulting a traffic cop, yet faces another uneventful election. Found guilty of illegal campaign finance activities, Assemblymember Roger Green was forced to resign in 2004. But he won re-election later that year, and competition for his seat only exists because he chose not to run for re-election, instead seeking a seat in Congress. And then there’s former Brooklyn boss, Clarence Norman. Norman, convicted this year in two felony cases, faces two to six years in prison. A politician even associated with him can face repeated attacks from opponents for the connection, although it doesn’t act as a disqualification. But his choice for judge in the Surrogate’s Court, Frank Seddio, still resides on the bench in a newly – and many would say deceitfuly – created seat. And Norman’s position as a district leader was handed over to a paid consultant who received hundreds of thousands of dollars in fees from judicial candidates backed by the boss. (There is widespread speculation of judges paying to get on the bench, and the method of party leaders nominating judicial candidates has since been declared unconstitutional.) Compiled by Mike Muller [...]

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