New York Chief Judge Janet DiFiore. Photo: Tim Roske

Candidates for judicial office will no longer be rated by commissions appointed by the chief judge, ending a vetting process that has been in place for 15 years. 

Instead, state and county bar associations will take over screening. In New York City and some populated parts of the state, bar associations were already interviewing and recommending candidates in addition to the evaluations of the court-appointed Independent Judicial Elections Qualification Commissions.

The court-appointed commissions were unpopular and some judicial candidates refused to participate, saying the process of being vetted by multiple bar associations was onerous. Critics complained that a court-appointed commission could not be impartial.

“The obvious concern is some people might look at it like incumbent judges favoring other incumbent judges,” said Robert Haig, a partner at Kelley Drye & Warren who was one of the chairs of the state bar association’s task force on judicial vetting.

Chief Judge Janet DiFiore disbanded the commissions at the end of 2018 because she agreed that the process was flawed, said Lucian Chalfen, director of public information for the Unified Court System. It fell to the state bar association to make recommendations for a new evaluation system to replace the court-appointed one.

The state bar association’s House of Delegates, meeting in Albany on Saturday, voted 51-48 to recommend that bar associations use a three-tier or two-tier evaluation system. The task force had favored a two-tier system.

The three categories—well-qualified, qualified and not approved—allow the evaluators to give more credit to an experienced judge over a qualified challenger with no judicial experience if they wish to make such a distinction. Judges who were members of the state bar’s judicial section felt this would be fairer to incumbents. The two-tier system was a pass-fail with ratings of approved or not approved.

“Having effective, partisan-free judicial evaluation and screening processes in place throughout the state is critical to ensuring that candidates for judicial office in New York possess the essential qualities to be a good judge,” DiFiore said in a statement that the New York State Bar Association is planning to release on Thursday along with the recommendations of its task force.

The task force, chaired by Haig and retired Court of Appeals Judge Susan Phillips Read, of counsel to Greenberg Traurig, found that the evaluation systems in place in most of the state are effective. But the bar association is offering its expertise to more rural parts of the state that need to put regional and countywide screening processes in effect.

“If you have a system that’s working well now we are not saying that you should change it,” Read said.

The task force noted that its mission did not include tackling a split in the way judges in New York are selected: the state’s appellate courts and the New York City Criminal and Family Court judges are all appointed; nearly all other judges and justices are elected. The state bar association supports a commission-based selection process for all judges, similar to the one used to appoint judges to the Court of Appeals.

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Task Force on the Evaluation of Candidates for Election to Judicial Office

New York State Bar Association New York State Bar Association