News & Politics

Supreme Court Backs NY’s System of Picking Judges


If anyone’s going to repair the broken way New York City selects its judges, it will have to be the Legislature, the Supreme Court ruled on Wednesday. And since it would take fixing the broken Legislature before that august body could actually accomplish something worthwhile, such as reforming the judicial selection process, it looks like New York will be stuck with its current system of judges being anointed by the Democratic party bosses.

From the Associated Press:

The Supreme Court unanimously upheld New York’s unique system of choosing trial judges Wednesday, setting aside critics’ concerns that political party bosses control the system.

“A political party has a First Amendment right to limit its membership as it wishes and to choose a candidate-selection process that will in its view produce the nominee who best represents its political platform,” Justice Antonin Scalia wrote for the court.

In New York, primary voters elect convention delegates who choose candidates for the judgeships. Once nominated, those candidates run on the general election ballot. In practice, they frequently have no opposition.

Unsuccessful candidates for judgeships and a watchdog group filed a lawsuit challenging the system. A federal district judge and the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals agreed that it is very difficult for candidates to get on the ballot if they don’t have support of the party leaders.

In striking down the system, the two federal courts said judgeship candidates who are not the choice of the party leaders are excluded from elections by an onerous process that violates their First Amendment rights.

The high court on Wednesday reversed the lower courts.

But since this whole case was set into motion when Margarita Lopez Torres defied party bosses and refused to fill a patronage job with the right person, it seems unlikely that the state party bosses and the legislators will work that hard at reforming the system.

Tom Robbins wrote about López Torres in 2003:

López Torres, 52, would have moved up to Supreme Court long ago had she not run afoul of party leader Norman. She did this by declining to accept the party’s choices to serve as her law secretary, an otherwise routine, if little-talked-about, transaction conducted by the Democratic organization. After picking the judges, the party then recommends assistants—whose $50,000-a-year jobs include scant heavy lifting, since the writing of most legal decisions is handled by a small pool of qualified aides in the court’s legal department.

One of the party’s choices was the fresh-out-of-law-school daughter of Brooklyn assemblyman Vito Lopez. Assemblyman Lopez is no relation to the judge, but he commands major clout within the party for the strength of his Bushwick clubhouse and his access to Albany patronage. The message relayed to the judge by the assemblyman’s allies was that if she hired his daughter, she would have a good shot at a prized Supreme Court candidacy. This is the way things work on Brooklyn’s bench.

López Torres, however, declined. Another judge was not as choosy and, soon after hiring the daughter, he won the party’s nod for the higher bench and was swiftly elected.


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