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Editorial: Our deplorable system for electing judges

Once again, Western New York voters are being denied their right to decide who wears the robes in the courtrooms that their taxes support. Party leaders, as is their anti-democratic custom, have made the decisions for them.

Continuing their long-standing practice, the leaders of Erie County’s Republican and Democratic parties have cross-endorsed two candidates for two judgeships, meaning that the two women anointed are guaranteed to win, barring any change of heart. Who needs voters?

To be frank, it’s not clear that voting for judges is the best way to select who sits behind the bench. Voters are overwhelmed with advertising from other races and judicial campaigns are low-key affairs, governed by rules that hinder in-depth exploration of the candidates’ strengths and weaknesses. Judgeships should be handled differently, perhaps in a hybrid system of appointments and voter confirmation.

But that’s not what we have. Instead, it’s a straight electoral system and, given that, it should at least be honest and aboveboard. Surely, that’s the least that voters can expect from campaigns for judges.

But, no. As New Yorkers have come to expect from our state government, the system is corrupt. Voters are superfluous and party chairs go along with the system that, unfortunately, was affirmed by the U.S. Supreme Court, not as desirable or wise, but as merely not unconstitutional.

Another ratty feather in New York’s tattered cap.

So, this fall, voters will see the names of two genuinely qualified candidates – Lynne Keane and Erin Peradotto – on the ballot, but only for technical reasons. Voters may select those candidates, or not; it doesn’t matter. They are going to win.

There seems little that voters can do about this charade, which even the party chairs claim to despise. “The whole process is flawed,” said Democratic Chairman Jeremy J. Zellner. “Until and unless people want to talk about it, it’s not going to change.”

Republican Chairman Nicholas A. Langworthy says it’s an “inherited process.”

“I didn’t write or design the law,” he said, “but we live under it.”

That’s true, but what is stopping the two chairmen – or any of their peers around the state – from declining to play in this mudhole? Choices remain. Free speech allows you to curse at someone, but it doesn’t require it.

The fact is that party leaders are content with a system that gives them, rather than voters, control. It provides certainty, while actual democracy is messy.
Zellner says the system won’t change until people want to talk about it. He and Langworthy are people. So are Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and every state legislator who sits in Albany. They should start talking about it.

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