For the last time in his 12-year administration, Mayor Michael Bloomberg on Tuesday swore in seven judges to fill vacancies on the city’s Family, Criminal and Civil Courts.
The judges were nominated through a merit-based selection process designed to ensure fairness and discourage political favoritism. Unlike most other mayoral powers, appointment of judges has potential to influence the city long after the mayor leaves office. Family and Criminal Court judges, for example, are appointed to 10-year terms. Civil Court judges are typically elected, but the mayor may appoint interim judges to fill vacancies as they arise.
“It’s a textbook case of how American democracy should work,” Bloomberg told a group gathered at City Hall to watch Tuesday’s ceremony.
And it apparently will continue to work that way.
Lis Smith, a spokeswoman for Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio, said in an email that he “supports this process and will continue it as mayor.”
New York City is the only community in the state to use such a “merit-based” system. Judges in other areas are subject to election.
Family Court Judge Robert Hettleman takes the oath as his wife Susan and daughters Anna, 10 and Julia, 6, look on.
Bloomberg has appointed 86 judges since he took office in January 2002. His predecessor, Rudolph Giuliani, named 67 judges in his two terms. Twelve of Bloomberg’s appointees have risen to supervisory positions in Family and Criminal Courts.
Of Bloomberg’s selections, 44 have been women and 26 have been minorities. They come from diverse backgrounds: 34 are former prosecutors, 29 came from the Legal Aid Society, eight worked in the city Law Department and 17 came from other city agencies. Forty-five have had experience in private practice at some point.
Bloomberg has also reappointed 119 judges chosen by prior administrations. He leaves office having shaped the city’s current entire Family and Criminal courts through first-time appointments or reappointments.
In addition to the seven new appointees sworn in Tuesday, two judges were reappointed to the Family Court. Another Family Court nominee, Ronald Richter, is finishing his stint as commissioner of New York City’s Administration for Children’s Services and will take his judicial oath before the end of the year. Richter had previously served as a Family Court judge from 2009 to 2011.
The swearing-in ceremony capped a vetting process of up to eight months for city judicial appointees that begins with their recruitment and selection by the 19-member mayoral advisory committee. Under chairman Zachary Carter, a Dorsey & Whitney partner and former U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District, the committee picks three candidates for each judicial vacancy. The nominees are evaluated by the New York City Bar’s Judiciary Committee.
Candidates are then interviewed by Corporation Counsel Michael Cardozo and three other top Bloomberg aides—Deputy Mayor for legal affairs Carol Robles-Román, her deputy counsel Norma Abbene, and chief policy advisor and criminal justice coordinator John Feinblatt—before sitting for an interview with the mayor.
“At those interviews, I’ve asked tough questions. And I didn’t always agree with the answers,” Bloomberg said Tuesday. “But I was never interested in the answers themselves. I was interested in the reasoning behind them, and how effectively people could explain the conclusions they reached, whatever those conclusions were.”
Never during an interview has he asked a candidate about his or her political affiliation, Bloomberg added.
The city’s mayors have turned to a nonpartisan, outside committee to fill judicial vacancies for the past three decades. The practice began in 1978 with an executive order issued by Mayor Edward Koch. Mayors David Dinkins, Giuliani and then Bloomberg voluntarily kept the program going.
Bloomberg’s 2002 order reestablished a committee “to recruit, to evaluate, to consider and to nominate judicial candidates highly qualified for appointment and to evaluate the incumbent judges for reappointment.”
“By making a commitment to vet their appointments by an independent, outside committee, the mayor is making it clear they are giving up patronage with respect to the judiciary,” Peter Kougasian, chair of the city bar’s judiciary committee, said in an interview.
Cardozo praised Bloomberg for sticking to the process throughout his three terms.
“A long time ago, when I was a young lawyer, I got involved in the traditional selection process,” Cardozo said. “And I’m convinced this is the best system for selecting highly-qualified judges.”
In a joint press release Tuesday morning, the Citizens Union for the City of New York, Fund for Modern Courts and New York City Bar urged de Blasio to continue the merit-based selection process.
“Each independent committee brings a different perspective and has access to different sources of information, and the partnership between the Mayor’s office and these committees helps ensure that the city’s judicial appointments are of the highest possible quality and reflect the full diversity of New York,” they wrote.
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