If judicial elections in New York State led knowledgeable voters to cast well-considered ballots for their favored candidates, they'd be worth keeping and protecting. But these elections typically don't.
The true power rests in the hands of party bosses, and quite often the leaders of minor parties with no political ideology beyond the quest for power and control over patronage positions. The electorate has little or no knowledge of these candidates' track records, qualifications or political beliefs. Voters, with so little information, either skip these races entirely or cast a ballot based on the party, gender or ethnicity the candidate represents -- or appears to represent.
That's no way to select those charged with meting out justice.
In New York most judges at the trial level are elected. Judges on the Court of Appeals, the state's top court, and its four intermediate appellate courts, are appointed. Court of Appeals judges must also be approved by the State Senate. But Supreme Court, County Court, Family Court and Surrogate's Court judges are elected, and the votes usually come only after brokering between party heads determines who's going to win.
This year, for instance, the battle for Long Island's four State Supreme Court slots to be decided in November has taken place mostly between Nassau GOP chairman Joseph Mondello and Suffolk County Conservative Party chairman Edward Walsh.
With party registration of Democrats and Republicans on the Island close to even, the 10 or 12 percentage points the Conservative line can deliver are crucial to Republican candidates. In these races, cross-endorsements from minor parties are often crucial.
But Walsh's demands that his small party's candidates get two out of four available judgeships, as well as all four plum "law secretary" jobs -- the research, writing and supervisory positions that usually lead to judgeships down the road -- went too far for Mondello. Breaking both his long string of ballot deals with Walsh and a 25-year-policy of never cross-endorsing Democratic candidates, Mondello instead brokered an agreement with Democratic leaders to trade Republican and Democratic ballot lines among themselves -- and shut out Walsh by denying the valuable GOP line to his candidates.
None of this back-and-forth among party leaders has anything to do with the merits and qualifications of the candidates being chosen for long terms on the bench.
Experts say both appointive and elective systems for picking judges elevate both great ones and terrible ones to the bench. That's true. But it's difficult to see how an appointive system could possibly be worse than an election settled by voters who have no idea whom they're voting for, the electoral equivalent of "pin the tail on the qualified jurist."
Changing this process won't be easy, but it can be done. Court of Appeals judges were elected statewide until 1974. Partly because no black person or woman was ever elected to that bench, a movement to make that court appointive arose and was successful. It's time for all county-wide judges to be screened by a fully qualified board, appointed by the governor, and confirmed by the State Senate. Such a system would remove the poison of the cross-endorsement process from the judiciary, and ensure at least some scrutiny of those selected.
Justice, they say, is blind. Selecting judges, though, shouldn't be.