The New York State Democratic Committee took a welcome, small step toward reforming the way it selects candidates for judgeships in this state. But it falls short of the sweeping reform that seems needed to bolster public confidence in a judicial system politics still dominates.
State Democratic chairman Herman D. Farrell Jr. formed a special party committee to develop a judicial candidate screening system. He wants it to look at a method in Manhattan that uses independent candidate-assessment panels, demands participation from potential candidates, and leads to recommendations of a limited number of highly qualified candidates.
That would still leave the final say in party hands, because it is the party that actually puts forward the candidates. But it improves the current system, which involves rubber-stamp "judicial conventions" that basically give party bosses the power to appoint judges. That system recently was termed unconstitutional by a federal court, and state lawmakers, not party bosses, ought to be leading a charge toward sweeping reforms.
Critics of the Manhattan system say it puts too much control of the election process in the hands of bar associations and law school members who sit on the screening panels. But who better to evaluate potential judges? Farrell wants community organizations to designate members, too, widening that scope. It's a step. But it's not a complete step.
New York is one of only eight states still electing judges, in a process that taints them with campaign-donation problems and allows parties to tap unspent donations -- common when parties cross-endorse agreed-upon candidates -- for other campaigns. More than 30 states use some version of a time-tested "Missouri Plan." That allows governors to make merit-based judicial appointments from a commission-developed list, then subjects those judges to a public yes-or-no retention election one year into their terms. That would do more to take politics out of what should be a non-political judicial system.