GETTING THE power of political party leaders out of the selection of Supreme Court judges is only one part of the court reform New York State should consider. Another problem is the inconsistency of a hodgepodge court system. It's difficult to follow the scorecard on what happens with judges because the court system itself is so fragmented.
Experts count at least 13 different types of state and local courts operating in New York. Some cases bounce around from one court to another in confusing ways.
A few years ago, Gov. Mario Cuomo joined others proposing a phased merger of major trial courts into the State Supreme Court. County courts, family courts, surrogate's courts, the Court of Claims and the New York City civil, criminal and district courts would have been in the merged unit. All their judges would have become justices of the Supreme Court.
The plan was to simplify and streamline, making the courts easier for the public to understand and simpler for their lawyers to navigate. But it didn't go anywhere, largely because of opposition from sitting Supreme Court judges who now see themselves at the top of the heap and want to stay there.
Election time points up the overall inconsistency as voters confront the ways judges are chosen. Consider just this part of the picture:
The public votes in primary and general elections for town, city, county, Family Court and surrogate judges.
By contrast, there are no primaries for choosing state Supreme Court justices. The parties' judicial nominating conventions put up the candidates. Then voters have their say in a general election.
Court of Claims judges are appointed by governors, subject to Senate confirmation. Although not elected, they sometimes fill in for Supreme Court judges, who must be.
Mid-level state appellate judges are appointed by governors from the list of sitting Supreme Court justices.
Court of Appeals judges, sitting at the highest judicial level in New York State, never face election at all, but are appointed from a list presented to the governor by a special panel.
Judges are chosen one way for one court, another way for another court. But that's a reflection in the fragmentation of the courts themselves.