Brooklyn District Attorney Charles J. Hynes, who is conducting an investigation into judicial corruption, announced Tuesday that he favors the appointment of judges.
In an address at the Down Town Association, Mr. Hynes said he now backs a system for the appointment of judges, similar to that used for the New York Court of Appeals, “to ensure excellence in the state Supreme Court, the premier trial court in the state.”
In earlier public testimony, Mr. Hynes had said he favored replacing the convention system with primary contests in which candidates receive public financing.
Mr. Hynes has expressed concern about the logistical difficulty of switching to an appointive system, which would require the passage of a constitutional amendment. Constitutional amendments must be passed twice by the Legislature before they can be put before voters.
In Tuesday’s address, Mr. Hynes said the level of vitriol in judicial campaigns in other states has led him to endorse the more drastic change, which would completely remove the selection of judges from the elective process.
“The level of evil rhetoric, all protected by the First Amendment, would leave the reputation of judges in shambles and would completely undermine the confidence the public should have in the system of justice,” he said.
Mr. Hynes launched an investigation into the way judges are elected in Brooklyn after the April 2003 arrest of former Justice Gerald P. Garson on charges that ultimately led to a bribery indictment.
The investigation led to charges against the Brooklyn Democratic Party leader, Assemblyman Clarence Norman, that he forced Civil Court candidates to buy goods and services from favored vendors to use in their campaigns.
Mr. Hynes said at the Down Town Association that he hopes to continue the probe for another two years after this fall’s election. Ultimately, it will lead to disclosures that so “outrage people” that the “system cannot stand and will have to be changed,” he said.
Mr. Hynes also said that a group he helped form a year ago has been pushing the state’s legislative leaders to hold public hearings on the selection of judges.
Senate Majority Leader Joseph L. Bruno “seemed inclined to the notion” that hearings would “be good for the system” but expressed a preference for joint hearings with the Assembly, Mr. Hynes said.
Mr. Hynes’ group, the Coalition for Judicial Justice, is seeking to build public support to change the way judges are selected. It has not taken a position in favor of either primaries or appointments.
An overhaul is needed, Mr. Hynes told the members of the Down Town Association, because the convention system creates “an illusion” that voters participate. Challenges to the political leaders’ choices for delegates are unusual, and, Mr. Hynes said, leaders have advised him that they “instruct delegates” about which candidates to vote for.
In some judicial districts, he said, one party or the other is so dominant that the nomination is tantamount to election.
Coalition for Reform
The 15-member coalition is an eclectic group that includes long-time supporters of an appointive system, such as Fern Schair, chairwoman of the Fund for Modern Courts; Patricia Duff and Monica Getz, leaders of groups seeking to reform the way matrimonial cases are handled; Douglas Schoen, a lawyer and principal of the political consulting firm Penn Schoen & Berland; and Arthur Eisenberg, legal director of the New York Civil Liberties Union.
Thomas A. Reppetto, president of the Citizens Crime Commission, a group supporting more vigorous law enforcement, has participated in the organization’s deliberations but not as a member.
The group has several objectives, but to date most of its work has centered on changing the way judges are selected. All the members “agree on the need to get the best people on the bench,” Mr. Reppetto said.
Former Appellate Division Justice E. Leo Milonas said the group is seeking to build public support for change by “influencing the movers and shakers in the business and legal communities to take an interest in improving the judiciary.”
Mr. Milonas, who formerly sat in the First Department and is now a partner at Pillsbury Winthrop, joined the organization when he was president of the Association of the Bar of the City of New York, which has long supported the appointment of judges.
Another member of the coalition, Charles Kolb, head of the Committee for Economic Development, a national organization that counts chief executive officers of major corporations and other prominent individuals among its members, brings considerable clout to the group’s efforts, Mr. Hynes said.
Mr. Kolb’s group has agreed to target New York as a state to push for change to an appointive system for judges, Mr. Hynes said.
The agenda of the Coalition for Judicial Justice also includes addressing issues related to judicial conflicts of interest and the way the court system deals with child custody in divorce cases.
� Daniel Wise can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.