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State commission was right to admonish two judges over their political activities

Much has been written lately about the anti-democratic manner in which some judges are selected by party bosses, leaving voters no choice. The News has also highlighted the practice of requiring political donations by those aspiring to become judges or those wishing to remain on the bench.

We have a system of selecting judges and funding their campaigns that needs fixing, but at least there are some rules in place that, when broken, lead to consequences.

As recently reported, a state panel admonished Hamburg Village Justice Andrew P. Fleming and Elma Town Justice Joseph A. Sakowski over improper political donations. In some cases, the donations were made in an almost arms-length manner, presumably so attention would be diverted from the justices. Sometimes donations were made much closer to home.

Fleming stipulated that he or his law firm, Chiacchia & Fleming, made 71 ticket purchases totaling $11,960 for political functions and 27 prohibited contributions totaling $12,533 to political organizations and candidates. In addition, he made two prohibited ticket purchases totaling $400 to political functions through his wife, who used a joint account. Fleming, justice since 2006, had been admonished two years ago in an unrelated case.

Joseph A. Sakowski, an Elma judge for 35 years and partner in Sakowski & Markello, made more than $20,000 in political contributions and his law firm contributed an additional $2,800.

State rules bar such activity by judges. The state Commission on Judicial Conduct settled on the mildest penalty for the two, an admonishment. It is, however, a strong warning that such actions by judges won’t be tolerated.

The commission wasn’t unanimous in its decisions. Richard D. Emery offered that the cases did not warrant the commission’s intervention and called the public discipline of the two judges “unwarranted.”

We disagree. Even a hint of favoritism undermines respect for what should be an independent judiciary. Backing political candidates and parties invites speculation over why judges made particular decisions. There are no indications that politics entered into any of the judges’ decisions, but such donations don’t pass the political smell test.