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Flawed system yields spoiled fruit

There are those in this state who, in their last earthly gasp, will defend the way that New York elects its Supreme Court judges.

They label "fair" an almost 90-year-old system in which a judicial nominating convention ratifies the chairman's choices, even if many of its delegates owe their jobs to Party Headquarters.

"It works," they say. "At least the system has always produced good judges."

There are also those who say that Justice Joe Makowski, who was hand-picked by that same political system, was a good judge. Committed. Hard-working. Smart; maybe even brilliant.

But on Thursday, Makowski will resign from the bench in disgrace, after submitting a sworn affidavit last September that said a friend with whom he had spent the afternoon in a local restaurant was not drunk when she was arrested in the Town of Hamburg.

It boiled down to trying "to fix a case," according to District Attorney Frank Sedita III.

As part of a deal to avoid criminal charges, Makowski recanted that statement. Now he must forever live with the label of "bad judge."

Makowski himself is not at issue on this Sunday morning. But the system that created him is.

The judge, you recall, arrived at the bench in a time-honored way -- he gained the favor of the Erie County Democratic chairman. Back in 1998 when Makowski was elected, he served as the party's chief fund-raiser. That, combined with the mutual interest of the Democratic and Republican chairmen, earned him bipartisan backing and guaranteed his election.

That meant a breeze into black robes and 14 years at $136,700 annually. No muss, no fuss.

But Makowski believed he had a further obligation -- this one to the system that got him there.

He raised $33,575 for his campaign -- even after his election was guaranteed. He gave $27,535, or 72 percent of what he raised, to the two parties and other campaigns -- the highest percentage for any State Supreme Court candidate that year.

Makowski paid $9,000 in various ways to Erie County Democrats, $7,500 to Erie County Republicans, $2,000 to a fund supporting Democratic gubernatorial candidate Peter Vallone, $1,100 to State Senate Democrats, $1,000 to Senate candidate Chuck Schumer, along with other donations.

In addition, Makowski and his wife contributed $5,100 of their own funds to the Assembly campaigns of Susan Peimer and Brian Higgins -- top Democratic priorities that year.

Makowski even paid a headquarters staffer $3,400 in consulting fees for a campaign in which he had no opponent.

"I had no ethical or political problem with it," Makowski told The Buffalo News in 2002. "I was on the ticket; my name appeared on the ballot. As a candidate, it would be expected you would support the ticket consistent with the ethics."

Makowski was a product of the system -- and proud of it.

Critics say politics intervened for Makowski again; that he escaped felony or even misdemeanor charges.

"Flat out and unequivocally no," Sedita says, emphasizing that Makowski cooperated with the investigation, loses more than half a million dollars in salary over the next four years and may still forfeit his law license if the Appellate Division's Attorney Grievance Committee acts on the case.

Those who embrace a system that selects judges because of the money they raise and the candidates they support must now accept the events of the past few days. The system that supporters say produced only good judges failed.

Anyone shocked over the events that brought down Justice Joe Makowski should look only at how he -- and many others -- got there in the first place.

e-mail: rmccarthy@buffnews.com

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