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Local races show that New York’s system for electing judges is infected by politics

The manner in which judges are chosen in New York is a shame and a disgrace, not only to the judicial candidates subjected to a sham political process, but most of all to voters who do not get to exercise their democratic right in picking who sits on the bench.

The reason for this charade rests in the odiferous cross-endorsement for State Supreme Court that News staff reporter Dan Herbeck recently outlined.

Supreme Court Justice Frederick J. Marshall is the only one of six major-party candidates for judge in the entire region to receive the highest grade from the Erie County Bar Association and four other legal organizations that rate judicial candidates. Yet he, along with his opponent Democrat John J. DelMonte, a Niagara Falls trial attorney with 34 years’ experience, were the only who weren’t cross-endorsed.

Elected to the position in 2001, Marshall is spending his evenings spreading the word to voters, while he presides over the strenuous liability trial from the Flight 3407 airliner crash in Clarence Center. Something is terribly wrong with this picture.

Start with political strategizing by Erie County Republican Chairman Nicholas A. Langworthy that, he says, guarantees the win of an open seat. That manipulation is trumped only by Erie County Democratic Chairman Jeremy J. Zellner’s lame excuses for one politically connected former elections commissioner who was cross-endorsed.

It’s a shameful system that lawyers at New York University tried to change back in 2004. They filed a federal lawsuit charging that the state’s system for selecting Supreme Court candidates is controlled by party bosses, is unconstitutional and should be replaced with direct primary elections. The Brennan Center for Justice at NYU Law School cited New York City, Long Island and Erie County in demanding reform. Although the effort failed, the NYU lawyers referenced a 2002 three-day Buffalo News series on Erie County’s system for electing judges called “Courting Big Money,” by News political reporter Robert J. McCarthy and retired News staff reporter Michael Beebe.

The judicial political game is still being played. Zellner and Langworthy are now the ones moving the chess pieces. They can talk all they want about party chairmen and delegates from seven other counties being involved in the selections but it is the same game, different players.

These two party heads would have to riddle the voters this: How does longtime Democratic Party activist Dennis E. Ward get cross-endorsed? Especially considering that on his way out the door as elections commissioner, he gave a $13,000 raise to his top aide on the Elections Board only hours before that aide and several of his political allies voted in Ward’s favor at the judicial nomination convention.

Brother of former Assemblywoman Francine DelMonte, D-Niagara Falls, John J. DelMonte told The News that he got a fair chance to present his case for cross-endorsement to both parties. But his reluctance to answer a question about his failure to be selected spoke volumes.

These observations are not to disparage candidates who were cross-endorsed – Buffalo City Judge E. Jeannette Ogden on the Democratic side, and attorney Paul B. Wojtaszek and incumbent State Supreme Court Judge Donna M. Siwek. Indeed, they are all worthy of voter consideration.

But justice – and the candidates – would have been better served without the political back-room maneuvering.