Benchwarmers

Everything you never wanted to know about picking judges for an important court you've never heard of

Because he wanted to do things properly, Spitzer appointed a special panel to advise him on whom to appoint. This is called "merit selection." It is preferable to elections, because voters are notoriously ignorant (see Bush, George W., Election of). Choosing a new P.J. (common vernacular for "presiding justice"—please memorize) is especially important because he also gets to pick the watchdogs who penalize wayward attorneys. Since Manhattan's hordes of attorneys all live in terror of being cited for wrongdoing, this causes the P.J. (see above) to be viewed as somewhere north of God. His jokes are the funniest ever heard, his wisdom unfathomable.

Unfortunately, Spitzer's panel didn't fully grasp the "merit" part. It selected five candidates as "highly qualified," yet somehow neglected to include two of the First Department's most distinguished members: Richard Andrias, a Vietnam vet with a Bronze Star who is considered such a stellar judicial performer that he has been nominated five times for the Court of Appeals, and David Saxe, another appellate Hall of Famer who is widely considered the best writer on the bench since the late William O. Douglas.

Cynics maintain that the absence of stars like Andrias and Saxe made it easier for the governor to select the judge he ultimately chose, Jonathan Lippman. An amiable insider, Lippman was for many years the court's able administrator and served as a loyal deputy to the state's top judicial officer, Chief Judge Judith Kaye of the Court of Appeals. As for actual judging, Lippman had a late start in the business: He never heard a case until 2004 and wasn't elected to the bench until 2005.

While this may seem an unlikely résumé for someone selected to head the state's busiest court, Lippman's many fans insist he is otherwise superb. The fact that he and his boss, Judge Kaye, have failed to get a raise for the state's judges for nine years should not be held against them, the fans say. And Judge Kaye's reluctance to go along with demands from scores of irate judges who want to sue the governor's ass to get that raise is also irrelevant.

Moreover, Lippman is so good that he is already being touted as a likely successor to Kaye when she has to step down late next year. Recommendations for that post will be made by another special gubernatorial panel.

That is how merit selection works. Who else are you going to trust to pick judges—editors?

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