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Another Voice: Ethics reform should include selection of judges

By Chris Jacobs

The need for reform in the halls of Albany is obvious and critical, yet the recent revelations of the corruption of a local state Supreme Court judge should highlight the need for reform at this level as well.

It has always struck me as odd and, frankly, very undemocratic how a Supreme Court judge in New York State is elected. Unlike other locally elected offices, Supreme Court justices are elected through a very insular process.

To run in all other elected offices, one can attain the party endorsement, which brings with it the benefits of the party’s seal of support. However, that does not stop someone of that party from circulating petitions and getting on the ballot for a primary election. We see many examples locally of the unendorsed member of the Democratic, Republican, Conservative or Independence parties winning the primary election. This is the sign of a healthy democratic process.

Supreme Court candidates are selected in a very different fashion: by a delegate system and a judicial delegate convention. These judicial delegates are largely chosen and controlled by the leaders of the political parties. Once the party delegates endorse their candidates, there is no opportunity for anyone to challenge them in a primary election.

This process, likely created with the laudable goal of insulating judges from the “ugliness of politics,” has made the selection of Supreme Court judges that much more political. It places immense power in the hands of party leaders to either make or break a judicial career. It also makes these Supreme Court candidates and judges far more beholden to party bosses instead of the voters themselves.

Suffice to say that is one reason for the very close relationship between now disgraced Supreme Court Justice John A. Michalek and former party chairman Steve Pigeon.

Further, as a result of this selection process those who are politically well connected tend to fare much better in the effort to become a Supreme Court judge in New York State. Being politically connected is not the best way to determine the most legally qualified person to be a Supreme Court judge, a position with a 14-year term, a near $200,000 salary, a lucrative pension and far more unilateral power than any state legislator.

The citizens of New York State would be better served if Supreme Court judges were chosen the same way other elected officials are chosen: directly by the voters. If I am elected to the New York State Senate, I will propose legislation to bring such reform to the State Supreme Court election process. As the saying goes, “sunlight is the best disinfectant,” and sometimes democracy is as well.

Chris Jacobs is Erie County clerk and a candidate for the 60th District seat in the New York State Senate.

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