Judicial Conventions Could Mark End of an 80-Year Era

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The New York Sun

The judicial nominating conventions scheduled for this week may be the last at which party leaders have any say in picking state judges.

For more than 80 years, party officials have been nominating judicial candidates in conventions that are criticized as scripted show-proceedings that always end well for party insiders. This is not to say the annual events never hold surprises: In 2003, in an instance picked up by television networks, two district leaders squared off in Brooklyn, ready to use their fists to decide which judge would receive their support.

Now that a federal court decision from earlier this year has termed these nominating conventions unconstitutional, some political observers expect this year’s conventions to be the last of their kind. There are no signs to suggest the delegates scheduled to appear will do anything differently than in years past.

The Democratic Party’s convention scheduled for today in Manhattan is expected to be a mere formality. The only two openings will go, in all likelihood, to the two incumbent judges seeking to retain their positions, the state leader, Herman “Denny” Farrell said, in an interview.

“We don’t expect any excitement because everybody is in favor of them, so we’ll re-support them,” Mr. Farrell said.

The judges are Joan Lobis and Angela Mazzarelli.

In Brooklyn, where judicial scandals have roiled the courthouse and the party leadership in recent years, a convention is scheduled to select the names of the five judges who will appear as Democratic candidates on the November ballot. A screening committee has approved 21 candidates, including a sitting appellate judge, William Mastro, for the five positions. The convention, to occur at St. Francis College, will be the first since Assemblyman Vito Lopez replaced the disgraced Clarence Norman Jr. as the county party leader.

An aide to Mr. Lopez did not respond to a request for an interview with the assemblyman.

Lawyers for the state Board of Elections and for judicial associations contend that the nominating conventions have been mischaracterized and that party bosses do not have the judgemaking power that their critics ascribe to them. In January, a federal judge, John Gleeson, ruled squarely against them, saying that the proceedings violated the constitutional rights of candidates and voters. A federal appeals court, the U.S. Second Circuit Court of Appeals, affirmed the decision last month.

Lawyers for a candidate whom the Brooklyn party leadership spurned, Judge Margarita Lopez Torres, have opposed the conventions, claiming that they lower the quality of judges on the bench. They have said the current process does not live up to the state constitution’s requirement that judges be elected.

Judge Gleeson ordered the parties to begin nominating state judges via primaries beginning in 2007, if the Legislature does not fix the constitutional weaknesses that he found in the conventions.

Regardless of how the political parties conduct the conventions this week, efforts to reform the conventions will go forward, the corporation counsel, Michael Cardozo, said.

“This is old news,” Mr. Cardozo said, referring to the conventions. “There is nothing the conventions can do that will change … the 2nd Circuit’s ruling that unless there is a more democratic process they do not withstand constitutional scrutiny.”

The New York Sun

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