The cost of winning (and losing) a State Supreme Court seat

With all the hubbub about elections for executive and legislative offices, and the tens of millions of dollars spent, races for judicial seats get less attention.  In many other states judges of the state’s top court are still elected and hotly contested because of the hoped for or anticipated rulings that a court may decide in things political like legislative districting and state ballot propositions.

New York is different.  We still elect Supreme Court, County and Family Court, and municipal judges, but it has been several decades since voters elected judges to the Court of Appeals.  It was a reform, although some may argue about how well that turned out.

There were five Supreme Court seats to be elected in the eight counties of the 8th Judicial District this year.  Democratic and Republican leaders settled four of the seats before the voters had a say.  Incumbent Tracey Bannister and newly appointed Craig Hannah, who had been Chief Judge of the Buffalo City Court, were the Democrats in the cross-endorsement package.  Town Justice Kelly Vacco and Gerald Greenan were the Republicans.

The fifth seat left two candidates in a contest.  City Court Judge Shannon Heneghan was the Democratic-Working Families candidate, while County Legislator Joseph Lorigo represented the Republicans and Conservatives.  While the cross-endorsed candidates collectively spent just $7,107 in their elections, Lorigo’s and Heneghan’s campaigns together spent 92 times that amount, more than one-third of it from their personal and family finances.

Greenan had previously run and lost twice for a Supreme Court seat, spending a combined $409,109 on those two campaigns. One hundred and two thousand dollars of that total came from family funds.

  • In Lorigo’s winning effort $368,556 was raised and spent.  Seventy-four thousand dollars came from his father, Erie County Conservative Party Chairman Ralph Lorigo, while Joseph put in $20,000 of his own money.  The balance came from donations collected from many lawyers and others. 
  • Heneghan’s total spending in the campaign was $284,394.  One hundred forty thousand dollars came from her husband, Vincent Lepera, with the rest raised from fundraisers and direct donations.

Lorigo won the seat by a 55-45 percent margin.  Heneghan carried Erie County but Lorigo won in the seven other counties in the District.

The current salary of a state Supreme Court Justice is $210,900.  Over the course of the 14-year term in office that salary is likely to be increased.  Benefits in the state judicial system are excellent, including at the end a pension based on the best three years of income times the years of service.

So the gamble is large, but the satisfaction of winning a seat and the financial rewards are substantial.  There is always a line of attorneys who are interested in judicial office in New York State.

In 2023 there are currently no Supreme Court seats in the 8th Judicial District that will be on the ballot.  There will be three Erie County Family Court seats on the ballot, but with incumbents involved there will probably be some cross-endorsements in the offing.  But there’s always 2024 and beyond.

The Court of Appeals

The Chief Judge of the state’s highest court, the Court of Appeals, oversees the entire judicial system in the state, down to the local level.  Chief Judge Janet DiFiore resigned last summer with four years left on her eligibility to serve on the Court.  There has been an ethics investigation involving Judge DiFiore.

DiFiore is among the six Court of Appeals Judges who were appointed by former Governor Andrew Cuomo; the seventh judge is Shirley Troutman of Buffalo who Governor Kathy Hochul appointed earlier this year.

Several of the Cuomo appointees to the Court lean to the right on the political spectrum.  It was that block of votes on the Court that threw out the legislative redistricting of congressional districts in the state and contributed to Republican success in adding House seats from New York.

As one of her parting actions DiFiore, even though she was leaving the Court, participated in the selection of an interim Chief Justice.  Her choice in a divided court was one of her right-leaning allies on the Court, Anthony Cannataro.  Previously such temporary vacancies were filled by the Court’s most senior judge.

The permanent Chief Justice of the Court will be selected by Governor Hochul no later than December 23rd.  The Governor is required by law to choose from a group of seven potential candidates recommended to her by the state’s Commission on Judicial Nomination.  Although all of the remaining six Court of Appeals judges requested appointment to the Chief Judgeship, only Cannataro made the final list.

The Commission itself is presently made up of three members appointed by Governor Cuomo; one by Governor Hochul; four appointed by DiFiore; and four appointed by legislative leaders. So combining Cuomo’s appointees, plus DiFiore’s, plus two from the Republican leaders of the state Legislature, the candidates recommended to the Governor may leave her with a limited range of options for the appointment of the next Chief Judge.

A Christmas and New Year’s break

Politics and Other Stuff will take a holiday break.  We’ll be back in your email and twitter inboxes on January 3rd

A Christmas greeting shoutout to my editor, Paul Fisk, for all his assistance throughout the year.  Thanks also to the many folks who have provided tips and suggestions for story lines.

Wishing you a happy and healthy holiday and new year!

Twitter @kenkruly