NY-GOV: Lazio's Decision Highlights Byzantine Judicial Nominations

Once you're on a ballot in New York, there are only three ways to get off of it: die, move out of state or be nominated for a judgeship. The third option is the choice of Rick Lazio, in a move that highlights the controversial way that New York picks judges.
by | September 27, 2010
 

Rick Lazio announced today that he wants off of New York's ballot for governor. You can see why. Lazio, a former congressman who won the Conservative Party's nomination but lost out on the Republican nomination to Carl Paladino, wouldn't be doing Republicans or Conservatives any favors by sticking in the race. His presence merely would have split the anti-Cuomo vote and risked Conservatives' ballot status.

But, under New York law, Lazio can only get off the ballot in three ways. He can die, he can move out of state or he can be nominated for a judgeship. Lazio is happy living in New York and he's happy living in general, so he's picking option number three, as the Albany Times-Union reports:

ALBANY -- Rick Lazio formally ended his campaign for governor Tuesday, paving the way for the Conservative Party to nominate GOP standard-bearer Carl Paladino later this week.

...

Conservative officials will nominate Lazio for a Supreme Court judgeship in the Bronx, where Democratic candidates typically win, and then a committee to fill vacancies will select a new gubernatorial nominee. Lazio said he would not weigh in.

So, Lazio gets off the ballot without actually having to be a judge because he won't win in the Bronx (he's from Long Island). Conservatives and Republicans get a united front. But, if it strikes you that something is wrong with picking judicial candidates based on politics rather than legal credentials, you're not alone.

New York's convention system for picking judicial candidates was challenged in court a few years ago and eventually upheld by the U.S Supreme Court. As that court case played out, the system faced stinging criticism from across the political spectrum.

From the conservative New York Sun:

Yesterday's ruling is a boon to the leaders of the county Democratic organizations in New York City, leaving them with one of their last remaining patronage powers: a strong degree of influence in selecting state judges. A coda to the state's century-old debate over how best to pick judges, the unanimous court decision will stymie legislative efforts to amend the unusual system of party conventions by which New York picks many of its judges.

The party conventions, which meet across the state in September for the sole purpose of nominating judicial candidates to the state Supreme Court, are unique to New York. They have long been criticized as a sham because they often feature little debate and evaluation of the candidates, with the delegates present often bestowing the party nomination to the candidates favored by the local party boss. One candidate, Margarita Lopez Torres, who was spurned by Democratic officials in Brooklyn, challenged the selection process in court. She convinced a federal district judge and a panel of three judges from the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that her First Amendment rights as a candidate had been violated, as had the rights of voters who had little voice in the nominating process.

And, from the editorial board of the liberal New York Times:

New York's Supreme Court judges -- who are trial-level judges, not members of the state's highest court, the Court of Appeals -- are nominated through an archaic system of judicial conventions. These conventions are dominated by delegates handpicked by party bosses, who vote however the bosses tell them.

Independent candidates for judge have virtually no chance of bucking the system. To win the nomination, a candidate who is not backed by the bosses may need to recruit more than 100 delegate candidates to run in different districts. Those candidates would have to collect thousands of petition signatures to qualify for the ballot. If they did qualify, they would need to do an enormous education campaign, because their names appear on the ballot with no identification, so there is no way for ordinary voters to make an informed choice among them.

The judicial conventions themselves are an empty exercise. More than 96 percent of the nominations are uncontested. Absentee rates range as high as 69 percent. They often take, from beginning to end, as little as 20 minutes. When Margarita Lopez Torres, the Brooklyn-based judge who is challenging the system, asked to attend a convention so she could make her case to the delegates, she was told that candidates were not allowed.

Josh Goodman
Josh Goodman  |  Former Staff Writer
mailbox@governing.com

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