Opinion Editorial on Judiciary

New York Times

A Defeat for Judicial Reform

Monday, March 17, 2008

By upholding New York’s machine-dominated system for selecting judges, the Supreme Court has dealt another setback to voters. The court has once again allowed political bosses to rig elections in ways that deny voters a meaningful role. New York’s political power brokers are no doubt cheering, but they should not be allowed to triumph. Even if New York’s method of selecting judges is constitutional, it remains unfair and undemocratic. It needs to be replaced.

New York State Supreme Court justices — who despite their titles are trial-level judges — are selected through a byzantine process. Primary voters select judicial delegates, who then meet in party conventions to choose their nominees. The conventions are generally controlled by political bosses, who often steer the nominations to candidates who deliver patronage back to the party machine. It’s a disgraceful way to choose judges. They are supposed to be above politics.

It’s also a system that makes the voters almost irrelevant. At the polls, they have to choose among judicial delegate slates — when there are competing slates at all — filled with unfamiliar names. It is a far cry from an actual party primary in which voters are allowed to choose among competing judicial candidates. The New York-based United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, in ruling against the system, declared that it unacceptably burdened the constitutional rights of both candidates and voters.

The Supreme Court, unfortunately, disagreed. Justice Antonin Scalia, writing for the majority, dismissed the idea that the right of association requires a process by which voters have a meaningful opportunity to affect an election’s outcome. The ruling is consistent with the court’s recent decisions upholding the right of political bosses to gerrymander political districts. These days, the only election complaints that seem to move the court are ones by corporations and wealthy individuals who object to limits on their ability to spend on elections.

Four justices, in concurring opinions, cast doubt on the wisdom of New York’s method of choosing judges. Justices Anthony Kennedy and Stephen Breyer noted that if the rules “do not produce both the perception and the reality of a system committed to the highest ideals of the law, they ought to be changed and to be changed now.” Justices John Paul Stevens and David Souter quoted Thurgood Marshall: “The Constitution does not prohibit legislatures from enacting stupid laws.”

A stupid — and undemocratic — law is precisely what New York has. Now that the cudgel of a court order has been removed, we hope the Legislature will summon the wisdom and integrity to fix the system voluntarily.

The odds of that happening are long, since the powers that be in the Legislature are the same ones that profit from the current corrupt system. It is, however, a cause that everyone who cares about a qualified and independent judiciary needs to keep fighting.

Press Clip Relevance

This editorial highlights the issue of partisan Judicial Elections, and claims that the process needs to change to prevent party machine control.

 

 

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