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 Mike Muller on May 4, 2006, 5:39 am
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