Letter From the President Of The Association Of The Bar Of The City Of New York

2006-04-01 01:00

To The Readers Of The Metropolitan Corporate Counsel:

From its founding in 1870, the Association, as well as others in the legal community and other organizations, has been pushing for reform in the way judges are selected in New York.While we were successful in establishing the method of appointing Court of Appeals Judges, and a much improved process for filling mayoral judicial appointments, efforts to change the State's method of electing judges have faced formidable obstacles.

Now, it looks like something will have to give. Federal Judge John Gleeson has ruled that the method of selecting party nominees for state Supreme Court, the judicial conventions, is unconstitutional. Judge Gleeson found the process to be under the tight control of the party leaders, thus depriving candidates who were not favored by those leaders of a meaningful opportunity to run for office. This, he held, deprives the voters of the opportunity to select anyone other than the political leaders' chosen candidates. Judge Gleeson called upon the Legislature to remedy the situation, and in the meantime ruled that party nominees for Supreme Court Justice must be selected through direct primaries. He has now stayed the ruling pending an expedited appeal.

Shortly after the decision, I issued a statement noting that, while the decision provides an excellent opportunity to reform the judicial selection system, the interim remedy of direct primaries still leaves us with many problems. Forcing all Supreme Court candidates into an election where they must raise funds from lawyers who would appear before them and address issues likely to come before them if elected, all while still needing to curry favor with political leaders, is not a long-term solution.

The City Bar has long preferred that judges be appointed, using a method by which citizens commissions, consisting of lawyers and non-lawyers and appointed by executive, legislative and judicial officials, select a limited number of highly qualified candidates, from which the appointing authority must choose. We believe this method would produce a bench of high quality while reducing political leaders' influence over the process. Recognizing that this proposal lacks the support of the State's legislative and political leadership, the Association has also proposed reforms in the elective system. The recommendations were developed by a Task Force appointed by my predecessor, Leo Milonas, and chaired by Bob Joffe. The Task Force's excellent report is available on the Association's website, www.nycbar.org.

Judge Gleeson's decision has certainly changed the landscape. In addition, new recommendations by the Commission to Promote Confidence in Judicial Elections have been issued with regard to both judicial campaigning and the judicial convention process.The state Senate passed a bill replacing judicial conventions with direct primaries, while the Assembly is considering a bill to establish screening committees for candidates for Supreme Court and for appointive judgeships. And the Chief Administrative Judge has issued rules establishing its own screening committees for judicial candidates. The confluence of developments in this area has not been seen for many years.

To address these issues, I have asked Bob Joffe to chair another Task Force to examine these developments and develop our own recommendations for what changes should take place. The other members of the Task Force are: Terri D. Austin, the Hon. Deborah A. Batts, Sheila Birnbaum, Richard Cashman, Katherine T. Cobb, Beth L. Kaufman, Niki K. Kerameus (Secretary), Roger J. Maldonado, Lawrence A. Mandelker, Maria Park, Richard Rifkin, Scott A. Rosenberg, Dean David M. Rudenstine, Jay G. Safer and Fern Schair.

I expect the Task Force to be very active over the next few months. Change is in the air, and the Association should, and will, bring its expertise to the debate. The goal is to develop a judicial selection system that provides a high-caliber bench independent of political influence, and that is perceived by the public of being independent of that influence.


Bettina Plevan