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Giving Voters Real Choices

by Deborah Goldberg, May 29, 2006
 

In January, Judge John Gleeson ruled on the case Lopez Torres vs. the New York State Board of Elections, which held that highly qualified candidates for Supreme Court deemed to be not sufficiently loyal to the party are unable to secure the nomination in New York.

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Margarita Lopez Torres ran for civil court with the support of the party in 1992 and later decided that she wanted to run for Supreme Court. After she got her seat on the civil court bench, she was given instructions from the county leader to hire a particular court attorney. Lopez Torres determined that the particular court attorney was not qualified for the position and refused to hire him. When time came for the Supreme Court nomination, she was told that the party needed loyalty – that those who stand by the county party can move on to the Supreme Court, those who do not stand by the party, cannot.

In the brief to the court, the defendants do not argue that the convention system serves judicial integrity or judicial independence. They do argue that the system serves the party associational interests and an interest in racial, ethnic and geographic diversity.

The first interest – the party’s rights to freedom of association – does not, in our view, include its right to exclude its own members from the nomination process. And geographic diversity can be addressed without burdening voters’ rights simply by imposing residency requirements on the judicial candidates, which do not now exist, or by reducing the size of the judicial districts, so that there would be smaller districts from which each judge would run. Racial diversity is a serious interest and whether or not the system in place or other alternatives created will be a great concern.

SHAM ELECTIONS

Related Articles:

Selecting the Most Qualified Candidates
Michael Cardozo, the counsel for New York City, argues that while merit selection is the best way to appoint judges, screening panels that recommend the best judicial candidates is the most practical approach.

Creating A Diverse Judiciary
Paul Wooten, who has served as a delegate to Brooklyn’s Democratic judicial convention, argues that, for the most part, the current system works and elects judges that represent the diverse city.

We begin with the premise that sham elections are not consistent with democracy. And sham elections are what we have under the current convention system. Our state constitution requires that our Supreme Courts judges must be elected. But the convention system allows the county leaders to usurp from the voters the power to select the justices.

During the course of the litigation, for example, evidence was entered that the New York County Democratic leader said that he had the votes to “kill someone.” In other words, “I can’t guarantee that I can always make you, but I can surely block you.”

That means that nobody becomes a Supreme Court justice unless the county leader agrees. In fact, after 13 days of hearings, 24 witnesses, and 10,000 pages of evidence, there was no evidence of a single person ever becoming a Supreme Court justice over the objection of a county leader. Between 1994 and 2002, 96 percent of all Supreme Court nominations statewide were completely uncontested.

In our view, if there are going to be elections in New York, then voters should have some real choice in selecting who is going to be on the bench. Now, whether there should be elections at all in New York is a different question, but in this case, the defendants argued that there is no right to meaningful participation in judicial nominations. To me, that is tantamount to the claim that meaningless participation is enough.

Having political parties control who is nominated to the Supreme Court is not consistent with judicial independence, impartiality or integrity.

AN ARGUMENT FOR PRIMARY ELECTIONS

The district court preliminarily enjoined the operation of the convention system. That means that until trial or until the legislature changes the system, the convention system is not in force. The original injunction would have defaulted to the fallback process in the statute, which are primary elections.

There were primary elections many decades ago, the convention system was put in the place, and so when the judge knocked down the convention system, he simply did what he deemed to be the least intrusive thing he could do, which was to reinstate the process that existed before.

This is the first real opportunity in decades to revisit the issue of how judges should be selected. If this decision is upheld on appeal, it will probably be the last opportunity we will have for decades. The party leaders have controlled this process for many years and unless we have an opportunity now, it is unlikely that will ever be able to persuade them to change.

The Brennan Center has not taken a position that open primaries are the best decision. We have not taken a position as to what we think the best system is. We believe there is more work to be done before we can make that decision.

The problem with the current system is that the party leaders control the selection. I am concerned that just tinkering with the system is going to replicate the problem.

More formal screening panels, for example, would not eliminate loyalty tests. Candidates will still know that at the end of the day, that the party leader will have the power to block the nomination. As long as that is the case then we have not addressed the constitutional problem.

As long as there is a system that allows the party leader to exercise that veto, we are still going to have highly qualified candidates who are going to self-select themselves out of the process.

So the candidates who come before the commission will not necessarily be the most honest, most competent, the people with the highest ethical standards. They will be the people who know that they can make a case to the party leader.

RESPONDING TO FOUR CONCERNS ABOUT ELECTIONS

The alternative – primary elections – should not be evaluated as a fallback system alone, but in terms of what they could be if there were appropriate amendments.

1. Money

The first concern about primary elections for Supreme Court is the cost. Some worry that quality candidates who either cannot or do not want to raise large sums of money will not run for office, or that they will be outspent by self-financed candidates. Public funding would address most of this issue.

We have done studies of judicial races and the cost of campaigns across the country, and we have found that the most expensive races are for the high court seats. People are spending millions of dollars on judicial races where there is no higher body in the state to overrule the judge, so it is a very important policymaking position. But we are not seeing, for the most part, very expensive trial court races.

2. Geographic Diversity

Another concern is geographic diversity, and reducing the size of judicial districts would address this issue. If a candidate can run in a single county, then candidates are not in the position to beg for scraps from the leader from the most powerful county.

For example, people in Staten Island have to convince the Brooklyn party leader that they deserve a seat on the bench. If Staten Island had its own district, they would have a much better opportunity to have geographic diversity.

3. Women on the Bench

On gender diversity, the Women’s Bar of the State of New York has submitted an amicus brief in support of the defendants in the case. They do not address the underlying issue of constitutionality, but some members are concerned that the move from a convention system to primarily elections will depress gender diversity in New York State courts. They argue “women will not be able to compete on equal footing with historically more politically entrenched candidates for Supreme Court justice.”

I find this ironic because right now women are at the mercy of politically entrenched, male party leaders.

I don’t think that they are likely to be facing greater entrenchment in an open primary. In 2002, the New York State Judicial Committee on Women in the Courts found that only 17 percent of Supreme Court justices were women. Even in New York City, 26 percent of Supreme Court justices were women, where as 47 percent of Civil Court judges were women. Civil Court judges run in primaries countywide, just as Supreme Court judges would have to do.

4. Racial Diversity

I also want to talk about racial diversity. In 2001, 92 percent of the Supreme Court justices of color in the state were from New York City. Even in New York City, from 1992 to 2002, people of color held 39 percent of civil court seats, but only 27 percent of Supreme Court seats. So in New York City, where we have majority populations of color, there is reason to believe, especially if there is public funding, that communities of color will be able to elect judges.

AN OPPORTUNITY FOR CHANGE

The one thing that public financing and smaller districts would not address is the fundamental question of whether the election of judges is appropriate in the first place.

Many people believe that institutionally the judiciary is not designed to answer to the tyranny of the majority and that the election process is fundamentally flawed. I’m not sure I agree with that. But even if you do believe that, now is an amazing opportunity for people of the state of New York to engage in a discussion about what is the best system.

Deborah Goldberg is the director of the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice

 
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