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Editorial: Rigged selection for Surrogate's Court invites corruption

Just when you think things couldn’t get worse …

With New York’s wretched system of electing judges taking criticism even from the lofty perches of the U.S. Supreme Court, you would think the pols who play in this mud puddle would be at least a tiny bit chastened. But – no. Undeterred, they continue to cavort in the muck, either oblivious of or indifferent to the damage they visit on the reputation of the state’s judiciary.

The collusion between Democrats and Republicans to control who wears the robes – and the money they extract by doing it – is, itself, an indictment of the system. But the all-but-certain election of Acea M. Mosey as Erie County’s next Surrogate Court judge raises the stakes.

The staggering amount of money involved and, just as disturbing, the disreputable way it was raised demonstrate a shocking embrace of practices that can only undermine the cause of justice.

Think of this: Mosey has a campaign war chest of $900,000. That’s not for a seat in Congress or the New York State Legislature, but on Erie County Surrogate Court, which handles probate and estate proceedings.
About half that amount came out of Mosey’s own well-stocked bank account, but most of the rest was raised at a single event in February at Kleinhans Music Hall. That moneyfest drew the area’s legal and political elite, as well as individuals who do business with Surrogate Court. In one evening, those donors jumped into the mudbath, Mosey compromised her independence and other potential candidates were scared off. It’s a poor advertisement for democracy.

Here’s how over-financed this campaign is: Campaign treasurer Philip Tantillo said that if the campaign were already over, “we would be required to refund about 75 to 80 cents on the dollar back to contributors.” That’s more than an advantage. It is, in fact, “the game plan,” he said.

It’s also a warning, because that game plan counted on taking reams of money from those who would be appearing before Mosey once she wins this legally rigged election. But legal isn’t the same as honorable. Judges should come onto the bench without this kind of dirt under their fingernails.

This is a long-standing disgrace in New York, where political bosses conspire across party lines to decide whom voters will elect.

A lawsuit challenging the system went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court where, in 2008, justices ruled the intolerable was not unconstitutional. In a unanimous ruling, then-Justice John Paul Stevens nonetheless quoted Justice Thurgood Marshall, observing that, “The Constitution does not prohibit legislatures from enacting stupid laws.”

The law governing judicial elections in New York is worse than stupid. It invites corruption and encourages suspicion of the state’s entire system of justice. That’s the way it is routinely in judicial elections here. The cynical, money-drenched game plan of the Mosey campaign drags that system even lower into the filth.

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