The way state Supreme Court judges are selected in New York is unconstitutional, a federal appeals court ruled Wednesday.
The 3-0 decision by the Second Circuit Court of Appeals means that, barring action by the U.S. Supreme Court, New York must move to a primary system to select its judicial candidates unless the State Legislature devises some other method. It also spells the end of an 85-year-old system under which party organizations essentially control who is elected to the state’s highest trial bench.
In an 82-page decision, the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a January ruling that requires voters be allowed to pick Supreme Court candidates directly in political primaries rather than the age-old convention system that is unique to New York.
Under the convention system, political party insiders make the decisions based, most often, on cross-endorsement deals and patronage. Because judicial districts are so big — Albany is one of seven counties in the 3rd Judicial District — few lawyers in smaller, politically unconnected counties have little, if any, chance to being nominated.
Reformation of the procedure must take place this year. The Legislature wanted to postpone this until 2007.
(U.S. District Judge John Gleeson ) Gleeson said the byproduct of the current system “is an opaque, undemocratic selection procedure that violates the rights of the voters and the rights of candidates who lack the backing of local party leaders.”
Supporters say that the process “…will make judicial selection … fairer and constitutional”. Critics argue that “only independently wealthy people will be able to afford to run for the Supreme Court”.
New York State Bar Association president Mark Alcott:
The present system does not do what it is supposed to do, he said, “Which is to give the electorate a real voice.” “Here is a chance for real reform,” Alcott went on. “It’s a rare moment when a good government result is also the most politically viable result.”