New Yorkers shouldn’t be voting for judges
Maybe this has happened to you on Election Day, too. You show up at the polls, ready to do your civic duty. You make your choices for mayor, City Council, public advocate, and comptroller, feeling pretty good about your grasp of local politics. Then you come to judges: civil court judge, delegate to judicial convention, a slew of names you’ve never heard, and your heart sinks. Maybe you tried to do your homework, looked up the ballot and googled all the judicial candidates and found nothing but impenetrable legal documents. If you’re like me, you just give up and leave the boxes blank, with the sinking feeling that the way we choose judges is practically random, not a healthy democratic process.
Judges aren’t public figures like other elected officials. They’re rarely in the news, and there are few ways for citizens to evaluate them. Our state and city representatives regularly meet with constituents and defend their record in the media. Our judges almost never do this, nor would we want them to spend their time campaigning and fundraising. We’d rather have qualified, impartial judges working daily to enforce our laws.
Lately there has been some news around Brooklyn judicial candidates, only because of an ugly personal feud between candidate John O'Hara and the Brooklyn Democratic Party. O'Hara is suing a former Brooklyn district attorney for malicious prosecution, and alleging that Brooklyn Democratic Party Chairman Frank Seddio is illegally fundraising for his preferred candidates. Seddio argues that O'Hara and his slate of Independent Democrats are unqualified, having never passed the party's screening requirements. This fight tells us little about who would actually be better judges, but makes it clear that the selection process is mired in dirty politics. The process for picking Supreme Court judges is no better – parties pick the candidates in secret nominating conventions, and voters just rubber-stamp their choice (pick any five of these five candidates, please).
Fortunately, there is a long-term solution that would keep judgeships from being political prizes without asking voters to become legal experts. It’s called Merit Based Appointment and it’s used in the majority of court systems across the United States. An expert, non-partisan panel selects qualified candidates and presents them to the governor (for statewide courts) or local executive (for local courts), who then chooses from that list. Thus, the public has someone to hold accountable for any problems with judges: their governor or mayor. This remedy has been endorsed by the New York City Bar Association, Citizens Union, and the Commission on Government Integrity, which dates all the way back to Gov. Mario Cuomo. Despite years of support, Merit Based Appointment has never gone anywhere in the state Legislature.
This year we have a unique opportunity to make a change. Once every twenty years, New York asks all voters if they’d like to hold a constitutional convention. That question will be on the ballot this November, and if a majority of us vote Yes, then we will have a chance to elect delegates and vote on the changes they propose to the state constitution, one of which could be Merit Based Appointment for judges.
You may have heard dire warnings against a constitutional convention, but the evidence doesn’t support them: previous conventions have never removed protections for New Yorkers, only increased them, and every change proposed in a convention would then go before voters for final approval. It’s hard to imagine a majority of us voting to eliminate protections for pensions or wild lands. No Republican has won a statewide election in 15 years. Regressive measures don’t have a chance of getting into our constitution, but commonsense reforms do. There are many other reasons to vote Yes for a convention, but one strong reason is to save us from the confusion of choosing judges in the voting booth.
Tony Melone is a freelance musician and political activist in Brooklyn.