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Suffolk County pol wants to overhaul NY’s judge selection process

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Democratic Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone is calling on the state’s top judge, Janet DiFiore, to support an overhaul of how New York’s judges are selected and end the political influence typically dominating the process.

“An independent review…would provide an unprecedented examination of an outdated process that enables political insiders to wield undue influence over the selection of candidates to serve on our Judiciary,” Bellone wrote to DiFiore — Chief Judge of the Court of Appeals and of the State of New York — in a letter on April 26.

“Instead of a merit-based system designed to promote excellence, diversity, and independence, we have a process that benefits the politically connected at the expense of ordinary New Yorkers.”

He said he’s planning a judicial reform conference scheduled to take place on June 8, and will be joined by watchdog groups such as the Brennan Center for Justice, Fund for Modern Courts, League of Women Voters and other elected officials.

“I have often said that we cannot have a serious conversation about criminal justice reform without addressing the manner in which judges are selected in this State. Time and again the outcome in judicial elections is predetermined, leaving voters with one candidate from which to choose instead of a list of the most qualified candidates to serve,” he added. 

Reform advocates have criticized the process largely as unfair, arguing it permits political parties to handpick trial court judges, instead of allowing the independent election of judges based on merit.

New York is one of just a handful of states where candidates seeking state Supreme court judgeships are nominated and then chosen by delegates at judicial conventions, eliminating competitive primary elections.

The process essentially allows judicial candidates to be pre-selected, and their names automatically are listed on the ballot before voters go to the polls.

Steve Bellone called for the changes in an open letter to Janet DiFiore, Chief Judge of the Court of Appeals and of the State of New York.
Steve Bellone called for the changes in an open letter to Janet DiFiore, Chief Judge of the Court of Appeals and of the State of New York.
AP Photo/Hans Pennink

Not all judges are selected and elected in this manner, appellate court judges are appointed by the governor and confirmed by the state senate.

In New York City, elections are held for the Surrogate’s and Civil courts but the mayor picks judges to serve on the Family and Criminal courts as well has having the power to fill Civil vacancies.

Fixes to the system would require a change in state election law.

DiFiore wrote to Bellone last fall that while the judicial branch technically has “no control” over how judges are picked, as that’s up to “the rules and practices of political parties,” she supports “a broad examination of existing judicial selection practices would be of great value to our state and could only help strengthen public trust and confidence in the impartiality and independence of the judiciary.”

A spokesman for the state court system reiterated DiFiore’s position, adding Sunday, “any suggestions or recommendations by the County Executive would certainly be seriously considered and open to further discussion.”

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Janice Hill

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