Why do we elect judges in New York State? Perhaps more importantly, how many people in the state really care?
You can make the argument that elections bring the judicial candidates to the people they wish to serve. Elected judges usually need to campaign by attending events, meeting voters.
But there are several differences between how judicial candidates and people running for executive and legislative offices campaign.
- Unlike some states, issues don’t come up in our judicial races, except in rare occasions such as a county court election several years ago. Candidates have signs, palm cards and commercials, but the materials are mostly biographical. TV ads are formalistic – the candidate sitting at a desk looking very serious, reading a law book, or maybe talking to a few people who are usually also looking very serious. Sometimes the ad makers feel they need to have incumbents sitting at the desk in their judicial robes. Does any judge really do that?
- Judicial candidates are allowed to file petitions to run in the primaries of several parties, regardless of their own party affiliation. They don’t even need one of those famous “Wilson Pakula’s!” (If you need an explanation of that, please see my March 25th post below.)
- While judicial candidates often rely on parties for campaign help, they don’t usually run as part of a party slate.
- Judicial candidates often need to raise substantially more to run than other elected officials. On the Supreme Court level this is often related to need to help political parties that have nominated those candidates, to pay for the parties’ “expenses.” Bob McCarthy has written some great articles about these activities.
- Judicial salaries are usually much higher than those of other elected officials.
- Except for town justices, the terms that judges run for are much longer than the terms for executives and legislators – usually 10 or 14 years.
You can also make the argument that judicial elections tarnish that branch of government with all the electioneering activities that are required. The option, in that case, is for judges to be appointed by executives, sometimes after a commission appointed by the executive screens the candidates. Up until about 40 years ago New York State elected judges to the state’s highest court, the Court of Appeals. An amendment to the State Constitution changed that to executive appointment. We still have Court of Claims judges appointed by the governor for 10 year terms. The Mayor of Buffalo appoints a City Court judge when a vacancy occurs on the court, but the position is subject to election within the year.
We in New York also have the time-honored traditional of bi-partisan endorsements of judges. On the Supreme Court level these deals, er, decisions, are formalized at judicial conventions. There are sometimes some strange results. In the 2014 Western district judicial conventions, four of the five positions were selected on a bi-partisan basis, with the fifth seat left for the voters to decide after the candidates ran their campaigns. The voters elected Republican Frederick Marshall, who received the highest rating from the Bar Association, outstanding. A candidate with one of the lowest Bar ratings, qualified, received bi-partisan backing, electing him without a serious contest.
There will be two Western District Supreme Court judges selected this year. Technically there will be an election, but in the “What We’ve Heard” category, the Democrats will offer District Attorney Frank Sedita and the Republican part of the arrangement will be attorney Emilio Colaiacovo. The judicial conventions in September will confirm any such arrangements.
Supreme Court justices serve 14 year terms and are paid $174,000 annually.
- District Attorney Frank Sedita may be interested in both becoming a Supreme Court Judge and also in trying to influence the governor’s selection of an interim District Attorney when Sedita leaves that position. Sedita’s preferred candidate may be assistant DA Michael Flaherty.
- Tonawanda Town Attorney John Flynn is apparently awaiting word about whether Governor Cuomo will appoint him to the Court of Claims.
Erie County Court
There two Erie County Court positions to be elected in 2015. Incumbent Sheila DiTullio is seeking re-election and likely will receive bi-partisan support. The other seat is currently held by Judge Michael D’Amico, who is retiring.
The ballot that we will see in November will say, Erie County Court Judge, Vote for Two. Before we get to November, however, there may be a primary to select the nominees of the various parties. Two other candidates have emerged thus far, Attorney Timothy Gallagher and Assistant District Attorney Jim Bargnesi.
In my estimation as a layman, Judge DiTullio is an outstanding judge who deserves bi-partisan support without the need to run a campaign. With three potential candidates for two positions, however, there will be contested primaries, and perhaps a contested election in November.
Erie County Court judges serve 10 year terms and are paid $159,900 annually.
Erie County Family Court
This election is for a newly added position to the Family Court. There are several names of potential candidates floating about, but no evident front runners at this time.
Erie County Family Court judges serve 10 year terms and are paid $159,900 annually.
Buffalo City Court
Mayor Brown in January appointed JaHarr Pridgen for a vacancy on the court created when Judge Jeannette Ogden was selected for the Supreme Court in 2014. City Court seats often attract several candidates.
Buffalo City Court judges serve 10 year terms and are paid $145,000 annually.
There will be elections for 20 town justices in Erie County plus an election for City Court judge in the City of Tonawanda.