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NEW YORK – The system of electing Supreme Court justices in New York violates the rights of voters and judicial candidates and must be scrapped, a federal judge said Friday in a scathing ruling that could change forever the way judicial offices in the state are filled. Eastern District of New York Judge John Gleeson enjoined the New York State Board of Elections from using the unique – and likely unconstitutional – system of conventions and delegates that now determines which candidates for Supreme Court judgeships appear on election ballots. Gleeson said Supreme Court justices should be nominated by primary elections until the state Legislature enacts a new statutory scheme to replace New York Election Law §6-106. “The plaintiffs have demonstrated convincingly that local major party leaders – not the voters or the delegates to the judicial nominating conventions – control who becomes a Supreme Court Justice and when,” he wrote in Lopez Torres v. New York State Board of Elections, 04 CV 1129. “The highly unusual processes by which that extremely important office is filled perpetuate that control, and deprive the voters of any meaningful role. The result is an opaque, undemocratic selection procedure that violates the rights of the voters and the rights of candidates who lack the backing of the local party leaders.” For the citizens’ group and eight potential judicial candidates who challenged the election process as unfair and virtually impossible without the backing of key party leaders, Gleeson’s ruling was equivalent to a grand slam in the bottom of the ninth inning. “The ruling is a victory for the voters of New York state and the judiciary,” said attorney Jeremy Creelan of the Brennan Center for Justice, which represented Common Cause and the potential judicial candidates, including Margarita Lopez Torres, who is now one of two surrogate judges in Brooklyn. “After more than 100 years of domination by party leaders, voters will finally have a meaningful say in the nomination process for Supreme Court candidates.” Arthur Greig, who represents the state Democratic Party, said the defendants would appeal and seek a stay of the injunction from the Second Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals. New York’s century-old convention system is unique in the United States and only applies to Supreme Court justices. At conventions, candidates for the court are chosen by delegates. The problem, according to the plaintiffs, is that those delegates, who represent various Assembly districts, are chosen by leaders of the state’s Democratic and Republican political parties and simply do what those leaders ask. The plaintiffs argued that it is impossible to either unseat these delegates or lobby them for support. Gleeson agreed. Without the backing of political leaders, he said, it is “virtually impossible” for a challenger candidate to field a slate of supportive delegates from various districts sufficient to win a place on an election ballot. The judge found that an insurgent candidate for Supreme Court in Brooklyn or Staten Island would need to gather 24,000 to 36,000 signatures drawn equally from 24 Assembly districts to have a chance at the nomination. The judge also dismissed the idea that a candidate could lobby delegates and win their support. He cited the example of Judge Lopez Torres, a potential Supreme Court candidate in 2003 who repeatedly wrote to the Kings County Democratic Committee to learn the date of the convention, the name of delegates so she could lobby them and whether she could speak at the convention. Seven months later, the county executive, Jeffrey C. Feldman, wrote back to her, “mocking the request for a list of delegates to lobby,” Gleeson wrote. Feldman said that no such list existed “anywhere in the world” and added that Lopez Torres could not speak at the convention. “Margarita Lopez Torres demonstrated in 2003 that indisputable qualifications for the job and immense popularity among the candidate’s fellow party members are neither necessary nor sufficient to get the party’s nomination,” Judge Gleeson wrote. “Something different is required: the imprimatur of the party leadership.” The ruling comes nearly two years after the lawsuit was filed, partially in response to judicial scandals in Brooklyn that have resulted in one judge, Victor Barron, admitting to bribery, and another, Gerald Garson, being indicted (he has yet to go to trial). The Brooklyn district attorney’s office has since won two convictions against Clarence Norman, the former Democratic Party leader and Brooklyn assemblyman, for election law violations, and continues to say that Norman could aid the office in further investigations of judicial corruption (Norman has denied this). PARTY LEADERS CONTROL While defendants in the suit have denied that party leaders, specifically Norman, controlled the selection of Supreme Court candidates, Gleeson dismissed those contentions in no uncertain terms. “The record of financial contributions by candidates for Supreme Court Justice to political groups controlled by Norman has fostered not only the (accurate) perception that he, rather than the voters or delegates, controlled the selection of the justices, but the further perception that he used the wrong criteria in making his decisions.” He added: “Based on the substantial body of evidence before me, I conclude that the plaintiffs have made a compelling showing that the New York system is designed to freeze the political status quo, in which party leaders, rather than the voters, select the Justices of the Supreme Court. By preventing competition among candidates and deterring voter participation, the system is successful in fact at achieving that goal.” Tom Perrotta is a reporter with the New York Law Journal , a Recorder affiliate.

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