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Judicial gamesmanship; The state's pathetic system for electing judges must be revised

There really are two problems that are evident in the way that warts are -- in how politicians cynically gamed the electoral system for advantage last fall.

One is that there is no easy way for a candidate to withdraw from a race at a late date. That could be easily fixed. The other is the grimy way that state politics are infused into the judicial election system. That also could be easily fixed, but probably won't be.

The two problems came together last fall as both major parties strategically sought to secure spots on minor party lines. Republicans, for example, wanted their gubernatorial candidate, Buffalo developer Carl Paladino, also to appear on the Conservative Party line. That was important because since 1974, no Republican has won statewide office without also having the support of the Conservative Party.

The problem was, former Rep. Rick Lazio -- who had been widely expected to win the Republican nomination -- already had the Conservative line and there are only three ways for a candidate to give up that support: He can die, move to another state or obtain a judicial nomination. Lazio chose Option 3. So did eight other candidates around the state. It's as legal as it is pathetic.

Here's how it worked: Republicans manipulated a GOP judicial nominating convention to make Lazio, of Long Island, a candidate for State Supreme Court in the Bronx. The Bronx is Democratic territory. Republicans don't win there, but the maneuver got Lazio off the Conservative Party gubernatorial ballot, even though Lazio had no hope of winning and probably didn't even want to. In an interview for Monday's story, he called the maneuver a "charade."

In terms of chutzpah, though, it paled in comparison to what happened in Western New York, where Republicans were fretting over how to retain the seat Dale Volker was vacating in the 59th State Senate District. They needed it if they were to reclaim the majority in the Senate.

Former Erie County Sheriff Patrick Gallivan won the Republican nomination, but one of his opponents, James P. Domagalski, had secured both the Conservative and Independence party lines, which could have split the Republican vote and given the seat to the Democrats.

Solution: Domagalski, former chairman of the Erie County Republican Party and a resident of Orchard Park, became a Conservative judicial candidate -- in Brooklyn.

That's how cynical election politics is in New York, and Republicans certainly aren't alone in practicing it; Democrats have used the same tactic. In this state, not even judicial races are sacrosanct.

Two things need to happen here: One is that the state needs to decide if it wants to allow candidates to remove their names from a ballot in the late stages of a campaign at all. There are reasons to be cautious about that -- pressure can be applied in a lot of ways -- but the bottom line is, better to allow them an honorable way off than through this crass manipulation.

More important is for New York finally to reform its judicial elections to minimize the roles of politics, fund-raising and cross-endorsements. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2008 that New York's smarmy system, while "stupid," was nonetheless constitutional. But that doesn't mean reforms can't be made anyway. All that is needed is the desire to make them. Unfortunately, that doesn't seem likely.

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