New York is just one of 12 states that still select judges via partisan elections.
And it’s one of just seven states where political candidates, including judges, may run on multiple party lines.
Now, combine the distinctions above with the state’s Wilson-Pakula law — which gives party leaders the power to give their line on the election ballot to candidates not registered in their parties.
It’s a formula that can end up providing more opportunities for political parties than the public — and may explain in part why federal prosecutors are delving into how judges are elected in Suffolk County.
But why are federal investigators interested in Suffolk, rather than Nassau or elsewhere in New York where the same state laws apply?
William Wexler, a Babylon attorney representing Suffolk Conservative Party chairman Edward Walsh, may have provided one answer in a story Sunday by Newsday’s Sandra Peddie.
Wexler said federal prosecutors bought charges of wire fraud and theft of government services against Walsh, whose trial is slated to begin Tuesday, because of the minor-party leader’s influence over the county judiciary. Federal authorities, Wexler said, twice met with Walsh, trying to get information about political corruption, including selection of judges.
But Walsh had no information to give, Wexler said.
Further, he said, any actions Walsh took as party leader were traditional and legal political practices.
Which still doesn’t make it right.
In Suffolk, New York’s system has given Walsh’s party — with 22,401 registered members in Suffolk, the state’s largest contingent of Conservatives — outsized influence in judicial elections.
As county Democratic Party chairman Richard Schaffer told Newsday, “When his line represents approximately 15 percent of the vote and neither major party gets you over 50, the Conservative party becomes critical. It’s just a matter of numbers.”
As with any political party, however, Conservative-fueled wins also generate the spoils of taxpayer-supported jobs — for loyal party members. In Suffolk’s judiciary, according to Newsday, that amounts to Conservatives holding at least 10 of 50 appointed law clerk positions; at least nine of those clerks also are Conservative committee members.
The Conservative line has become so essential in Suffolk that, at least in one case, it spawned a middleman seeking to help secure the line for a prospective client. According to Newsday, former Suffolk lawmaker Fred Towle, who pleaded guilty in 2001 to taking bribes, tried to do just that for judicial candidate Tara Scully, a fellow Republican.
During a meeting, Towle offered the Scully campaign his services as a consultant for $10,000 and also suggested that the candidate make a $2,000 contribution to the Conservative Party, a source told Newsday. In a series of text messages, Towle pressed Scully’s campaign for an answer, with Towle at one point texting that he was meeting with Walsh and would “make our pitch,” and that the “window is about to close.”
Scully’s campaign turned him down.
But another window — that is, the opportunity to put the system toward political use — remains wide, wide open.
“Forty-nine other states have looked at New York State and have chosen something different for a reason,” said James Sample, a Hofstra University law professor specializing in campaign finance and judicial selection.
Why can’t New York State, at minimum, go to nonpartisan elections — to a system in which voters would have more say, and where judges, rather than party leaders, choose their own law clerks?