For the sixth year in a row, Western New York voters will face a State Supreme Court ballot this fall with a choice predetermined by leaders of the Democratic and Republican parties.
Incumbent Republican Edward A. Rath and Democrat Joseph G. Makowski were chosen in judicial nominating conventions of both major parties and the Conservatives during separate sessions for State Supreme Court seats Monday evening in the Statler Towers. As a result of the cross-endorsements, Rath and Makowski both are assured of election to the bench on Nov. 3.
Combined with the previous cross-endorsement of Michael Pietruszka for Erie County judge earlier this year, the move means all county and Supreme Court judges in Erie County have been preselected by party leaders.
At least one party leader, Erie County Republican Chairman Robert E. Davis, says he's not thrilled with a process that offers no choice to the voters.
"It brings into question whether these positions should be elected or appointed," he said. "I believe the process is flawed."
Along with Erie County Democratic Chairman G. Steven Pigeon, Davis essentially picked Rath and Makowski as this year's judicial candidates for the eight-county Eighth Judicial District. That stems from the fact that no Republican besides Rath stepped forward to run in an area heavily dominated by Democrats.
Davis pointed out that Justice David B. Mahoney in 1993 stands as the only Republican in the last several years to win a contested election, and that was in a four-person field. Few attorneys in his party are willing to risk the $150,000 to $250,000 needed to run competitively, he said, allowing the practice of bipartisan backing to gain even more momentum as the way of determining Supreme Court jurists.
In an effort to recruit potential GOP judicial candidates, however, Davis said he established a Republican Lawyers Club to get more Republican attorneys involved in interviewing candidates. But he acknowledged that even in a year when the statewide Republican ticket is expected to fare well, there was no interest in GOP attorneys beyond the incumbent Rath.
"I'll be honest with you, it's not a process I agree with or want to be involved with," he said. "But until somebody changes the rules, it's the process we have to live with."
The process may mean automatic election, but it does not mean an end to fund-raising for judicial candidates. Even those selected on a bipartisan basis have over the past few years held fund-raisers, with most raising in the neighborhood of $20,000 to $30,000 for "associated costs." Most of that money goes to Democratic and Republican headquarters, and sometimes for favorite candidates and causes of the chairmen.
Pigeon, the Democratic chief, pointed out that many years a choice is offered. And he says cross-endorsements are a good way of ensuring that quality people are elected to the bench.
"It's traditionally done when the parties find deserving people who will do well on the bench," he said. "And the system is designed so that the judicial branch is treated a little differently from the legislative and executive branches."
He also said he believes the number of cross-endorsed and contested elections is about even when looked at over a period of years.
Rath is seeking his second 14-year term on the bench and has been rated "qualified" by the Erie County Bar Association. Makowski, former treasurer of the Erie County Democratic Party, is making his first judicial try. Bar association sources indicate he was invited to submit an application to be ranked but did not respond.
John V. Rogowski, an Erie County judge, also was active in seeking the nomination, but his failure to gain Pigeon's support as the Democratic candidate made his bid unsuccessful Monday.