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The people should choose judges

I doff my hat in sincere and respectful tribute to a federal district court judge from Brooklyn whom I've never met and whose party affiliation I do not know.

In fact, I had never heard of Judge John Gleeson until I read of his recent ruling, which probably angered state political leaders, whom he stripped of their stranglehold over the selection of New York State Supreme Court judges. Judge Gleeson's decision restored democracy in the selection of the state's top trial judges. He is to be congratulated for his decision.

Gleeson ruled that the judicial selection process in effect for State Supreme Court judges was controlled by Republican and Democratic party officials, depriving voters in the state of their say in who had an opportunity to be elected. The judge said that the system was unconstitutional and ordered it halted at once. In its place, he mandated that primaries be held until the State Legislature passes legislation setting up a new system, although an expected appeal of his ruling could delay that plan.

His ruling came in a lawsuit brought by a citizens' group, a candidate who did not get Democratic Party backing to get on the ballot in Brooklyn and eight individual voters. An appeal of his decision is considered likely. Jeremy Creelan, who sued the state on behalf of the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University Law School said The Buffalo News series in 2002 on the problems in the system encouraged the Brennan Center to sue the state.

The News series said that the political parties in Western New York charged judicial candidates up to $7,500 to get a judicial nomination and pressured potential candidates for the bench to buy tickets costing up to $5,000, with the dollars going to the party for use by other candidates favored by the party.

Judge Gleeson in his ruling stated that "The plaintiffs have made a compelling showing that the New York system [for selecting State Supreme Court candidates] is designed to freeze the political status quo in which party leaders rather than the voters select the justices of the Supreme Court. By preventing competition among candidates and deterring voter participation, the system is successful, in fact, at achieving that goal."

In his decision, the judge observed that in Western New York's Eighth Judicial District, only once in 25 years did a Democratic nominating convention ever do anything but rubber-stamp the chairman's choice.

The lawsuit that resulted in Gleeson's ruling noted that from 1994 to 2002, a total of 568 candidates were nominated statewide for State Supreme Court positions and not one challenger to the handpicked candidates of party leaders won nomination.

While Gleeson ordered primary elections until the Legislature makes a decision on what to do, there are dissenting voices about that move. They raise concerns that raising funds for primary races could be a problem. The New York City Bar Association president, Bettina Plevan said that a system that encourages judicial candidates to raise funds from attorneys who would appear before them does not present a long-term solution. She urged consideration of an appointment system.

The executive director of the Fund for Modern Courts also has expressed concerns, saying that primaries "open, potentially a can of worms." His organization favors an appointive process with independent screening panels or possibly financing judicial races with public money.

Let's hope that the State Legislature enacts legislation that will reinforce Gleeson's decision guaranteeing voter participation in the selection of candidates for the State Supreme Court.

Murray B. Light is the former editor of The Buffalo News.

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