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Conventions Create A Diverse Judiciary

by Paul Wooten, May 29, 2006
 

I was first elected as a judicial delegate in Brooklyn in 1982. At that time, the conventions were very quick, they only lasted one day. The county leaders picked the judges. And most of the judges who came out of the convention in the early 1980s were white, and no one cared about how the convention worked and who got elected. That was just how it was.

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I want to explain how the judicial convention works today.

Every assembly district is allotted a certain number of delegates – anywhere from five to eight people – based on the party turnout from the previous gubernatorial election. Delegates run on the slate with the district leaders, who are party officials, and they go to the convention. The judicial delegates, either by voice vote or hand vote, determine who wins the nomination for Supreme Court justice.

In the early 1980s, white judges were elected and qualified African-Americans and Hispanics could not get elected. But over the last thirty years, the population of white residents in Brooklyn went down and the African-American and Hispanic populations have risen.

Today, African-American and Hispanic populations control the two most populous districts in Brooklyn and as a result elect judicial delegates who are black and Hispanic. They have, in turn, elected African-American and Hispanic judges to the bench. We have a larger percentage of African American judges in Brooklyn than in some states. And that is a direct result of population changes, the judicial conventions, and how they work.

Because of judicial delegates, we have African-Americans and Latinos on the bench.

WHY MERIT SELECTION WON’T WORK

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Giving Voters Real Choices
Deborah Goldberg of the Brennan Center argues that with certain reforms, primary elections could address many of the current problems in selecting judges.

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.

From my experience, the best way can power sharing for minorities is through some kind of elective process. I have huge concerns about the merit process. I’ve looked at them; I’ve been on screening panels. The merit process does not work for me.

Look at the current situation in the merit screening process of the governor. The governor has been in office for ten years, and he has a merit process for the appellate division. The first division of the appellate division has a huge African-American and Latino population in Brooklyn and Queens. But of the 16 appellate judges in the division, there is only one African American and one Hispanic.

Of the 60 Courts of Claim judges, which are appointed by the governor, we have one African-American and three Hispanics. And the one African-American judge was a candidate for Congress and basically he was appointed at the request of the Democratic Party in Queens. It had nothing to do with merit.

The Brooklyn family court –whose judges are appointed by the mayor - services the largest minority population in the state. We have no African-American family court judges. Not one.

Merit selection boards appoint people who look like them. The judicial conduct commission has 11 members, all appointed, and has no minority representative. Under merit selection, the majority of the people in the room are not people of color. When it comes down to the question of “who is the best?” or limiting it to the best three out of ten, there is a strong likelihood that people of color will be eliminated.

REFORMING CONVENTIONS

There are problems with the judicial conventions, but there are things that can be done to make judicial conventions better.

First of all, we have to let the delegates determine who the judicial candidate is.

In my experience, whenever a candidate gets enough momentum to become a threat at the judicial convention, the party leader always adopts that candidate. Some would say, a person didn’t get elected because the county leader opposed them, but nine times out of ten, consensus means that they did not have enough support. Consensus means that the party is holding things together, and that is how you are chosen.

The Gleeson decision talks about a “super majority” that is needed to challenge a judicial convention, but I dispute that. In the 1980s, we ran delegates in assembly districts against delegates from the country organization.

We found that you don’t need a super majority to challenge the judicial convention. All you have to do is have enough delegates to support you – about one-third – so that you can go to the convention with enough votes to negotiate.

Here are other four ways to improve the judicial convention:

1. Make the judicial delegates public.

2. Open the convention.

3. Allow candidates to speak at these events.

4. Allow time for electioneering.

And if you are going to keep the judicial conventions, give them the right to choose. To now say, you are smart enough to be elected by the direct vote of the people, but you are not smart enough to determine who is best qualified, and we have to put a panel up here to filter who you can choose from, strikes against my sense of what electoral politics are.

When you run for State Senate or Assembly or Congress, there is not a panel to determine if you are a good candidate. The public has the ability with input from bar associations, to determine who the best judges are.

Paul Wooten heads up Paul Wooten and Associates

 


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