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New York’s corrupt arrangement for selecting judges demands change

Can New Yorkers get a fair hearing in state courts? Absolutely, but that is in spite of – not because of – the sleazy system by which judicial candidates are endorsed for office and what they may have to do to win an election.

The issue broke into the open – again – with the election last year of a local Democratic Party hack to a judicial post. The Erie County Bar Association rated former Election Commissioner Dennis Ward lower than any other cross-endorsed judicial candidate last year, yet he breezed to victory. Why? Because connections and the ability to manipulate the system are more important than ability. Ward wanted a judgeship and he got it.

News Political Reporter Robert J. McCarthy wrote how campaign finance records show that Ward and his wife – former County Legislator Michele M. Iannello, D-Kenmore – contributed almost $16,000 over the past two years to various Democratic Party accounts. Becoming a judge is like stealing candy from a baby.

Not only that, but Democratic and Republican Party bosses shook down the candidates for $4,000 donations meant for campaign literature directed at – get this – voters of the Independence Party, who overwhelmingly side with candidates endorsed by the Republican Party. Even candidates who weren’t endorsed, and who had no chance of being endorsed, were prevailed upon to pony up their thousands as an expensive show of good faith – just in case they wanted the party to look favorably on them at some future date.

And this is the system that is meant to produce judges who are ethical, even-handed and above reproach. New Yorkers are thus required to expect a judicial temperament from men and women who have been forced to swim through a sea of sludge in order to sit on the bench.

That this system produces good judges is something of a miracle, though the public’s general acceptance may have something to do with broad-based ignorance of what judges had to do to be fitted for their robes.

New York is the only state with this system for selecting judges. It came close to being abolished when a federal judge declared the system to be unconstitutional, but it survived after the U.S. Supreme Court declared that the system, while possibly “stupid,” was not, in fact, unconstitutional. The only reason to maintain it is that party bosses like the power it gives them.

The intersection of money and politics is always fraught. It has been the nexus of much of the criminality that has plagued Albany over the years, and if no judges have yet been compromised there, then wait. It almost has to happen.

For now – and probably for a long time – New Yorkers are stuck with this unscrupulous way of selecting judges. The only way it can come undone is if candidates, en masse, and their donors – often the lawyers who will be practicing before them – refuse to play the game. Things have a momentum, though, so unless someone takes the lead, New York will keep stumbling along this ethically disastrous path.

Someday, someone will trip on it.