July is when New York political parties file petitions to place candidates’ names on the ballots for state and local offices. In recent years, leaders of the Independence, Conservative and Working Families parties have used their control of about 14 percent of the November vote to extract promises from major party leaders on the assumption that because major party candidates rarely get more than 45 percent on each of their party lines, no candidate can win without the blessing of minor party bosses. But when it comes to judicial candidates, they might be wrong.
Before I retired in 2010, I spent nearly 40 years in the legal profession in Suffolk County, including 21 years as a District Court judge. From my experience, Long Island is fortunate that voters, not political leaders, have the final word in electing judges for at least four of our most important trial courts. News reporting on judicial races usually fails to note the possibility of judicial primary elections for all races for district, county, surrogate and family courts.
In 1989, the Brookhaven Republican Party designated for District Court judge a Conservative Party leader who had little or no experience in the practice of law. The Conservative Party in turn cross-endorsed all Republican candidates for town offices. The judicial candidate did not screen with the Suffolk Bar Association, as most judicial candidates do, and it found him “not qualified.”
I decided to attempt a Republican Party primary based on my then-20 years of experience as an Army captain in the Judge Advocate General Corps in Vietnam, Suffolk County assistant district attorney and law assistant to two judges. However, several party insiders warned that I was wasting my time because no one cared who was elected to District Court. More than 400 Brookhaven Republican committee members were expected to support my opponent, although several had told me they would support me if their (political) jobs were not at risk.
The law required more than 1,200 valid signatures to get on the ballot. I had about 30 friends, neighbors and relatives help gather signatures, and after more than 300 volunteer hours, we filed more than 2,100 signatures, avoiding legal challenges.
On primary day, I won by slightly more than 100 votes, and during the years after 1989, I noted that political leaders paid more attention to professional qualifications in selecting judges. Whenever I came up for re-election, although a few leaders labeled me a “troublemaker,” the Republican and Conservative parties supported me.
The last time I ran in 2007, I noted the leader of the Independence Party, Frank McKay, was playing the party’s accustomed game of withholding the party’s ballot line from candidates of both major parties until his political demands were met. For instance, McKay required the Republican and Democratic parties to have volunteer notaries carry the Independence Party’s petitions with its own candidates’ names before he would announce his choices.
Fortunately, judicial candidates are not required to obtain a “permission slip” — the so-called Wilson-Pakula certificate — from any party leader before running in a minor party primary. So I obtained enough voter signatures and then campaigned door to door, visiting members of the minor party, stressing my judicial experience.
The bottom line: Political leaders do not have unlimited power to select judges without regard to qualifications, at least for the four trial courts closest to the people. Through judicial primaries, qualified candidates and voters who care can correct the leaders’ mistakes.
We learned in high school that one great advantage of our governmental system is the existence of checks and balances. Thank God, some of that still survives.
Kevin J. Crowley is a retired Suffolk County District Court judge.