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Corrupt system of selecting judges creates the potential for criminal activity

Forget for now whether a State Supreme Court justice broke the law in his dealings with a political player who seems to wield influence from Buffalo City Hall to the halls of Congress. That matter remains under investigation, and there has been no formal indication that anyone will be charged with a crime.

Here’s the problem Erie County residents, and all New Yorkers, can contemplate today: Because of the wretched, corruption-inducing system this state requires aspiring judges to use, it is not difficult to believe that such deviance could occur.

A joint investigation by state and federal law enforcement agencies is looking into the possibility that State Supreme Court Justice John A. Michalek asked political operative G. Steven Pigeon to help find a job in Washington for a relative. That would be bad enough, but it gets worse because at that very time, a close associate of Pigeon had a multimillion-dollar case pending in Michalek’s courtroom.

If true, the request would be darkly unethical on its face. Investigators are reportedly examining the possibility that it was much worse than that – bad enough that it could produce bribery charges against both men.

Illegal behavior can happen even without New York’s disreputable system of electing judges, of course. All it takes is a willingness to trade on your public position for personal benefit. But in New York, judicial candidates practically have to prostrate themselves before party leaders and influential players in order to win a place on the bench.

Consider: In 2014, bosses from both major parties demanded donations of $4,000 from each judical hopeful to pay for campaign literature that would be aimed at voters of the Independence Party. Even candidates who weren’t endorsed, and who had no chance of being endorsed, were pressured to pay tribute to the party – just in case they might ever want to try again for a judgeship.

Thus, judges and judicial hopefuls in New York are required to engage in injudicious relationships involving political bosses who want money. The potential for abuse is obvious, yet the system, itself, has been declared constitutional – though not necessarily wise – by no less an authority than the U.S. Supreme Court.

Now, the question is whether Michalek and Pigeon were trading favors – or even talking about it – and what influence the state’s crooked judicial nominating system may have played in it.

Regardless of how that turns out, this is a deadly serious matter. The investigation has involved agents from State Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman’s office, State Police, the U.S. Attorney’s Office, the FBI and other agencies. It has developed since investigators searched the homes of Pigeon, former Buffalo Deputy Mayor Steven M. Casey and Christopher M. Grant, a political consultant and former aide to Rep. Chris Collins. R-Clarence.

Sources have said that Pigeon’s computer provided evidence of extensive discussions between him and Michalek about helping the judge’s relative find a job.

It’s a dispiriting set of circumstances for anyone who cares about an upright judiciary and honest government. A more ethical system for choosing judges might not have made a difference in this case, but it certainly wouldn’t have hurt.