As I mentioned recently, there were two bizarre judicial rulings in the New York State Supreme Court setting back transportation reform. On August 18, State Supreme Court judge Arthur Engoron declared that the Five Borough Taxi Plan was unconstitutional, and on August 22, State Supreme Court judge Bruce Cozzens declared that a payroll tax that funds a significant chunk of the city's transit operations is unconstitutional. They both rested their opinions on a dubious principle of home rule.
The State Supreme Court - that sounds like a big deal, huh? Like New York's version of Justices Breyer and Roberts? Actually, as I learned in eighth grade, the Supreme Court is actually the state's lowest court, able to be overruled by the Appellate Division and the Court of Appeals, not to mention federal courts. But it's still significant. So where did these guys come from, anyway, and how did they get this kind of power?
Governing magazine has the answer, and it links to two editorials that are definitely worth a read. I sure didn't learn this stuff in eighth grade! It turns out that New York State has a hugely crappy, undemocratic system of electing judges. Sure, you can get nominated as an independent, but to get the nomination of the Democratic or Republican parties you don't run in the primary like you might for a legislative seat. You need to be chosen by a Judicial Nominating Convention.
Who votes in the nominating convention? Judicial Delegates. Who chooses the judicial delegates? In principle, you can vote for them in the primary, but in practice nobody bothers to collect the signatures to contest a judicial delegate election. The county party committee can nominate candidates for the primary without requiring signatures, and the party committee is controlled by the county chair. So in practice, the county chairs nominate the delegates and tell them who to nominate for judgeships, and the delegates do it.
Okay, so where do these County Chairs come from? They're elected by the county committee, which is made up of the party's State Committee members from that county. In theory, the State Committee members are elected in the primary elections, but just like the judicial delegates, it's very rare to collect petitions and run for the State Committee. Most people just get nominated by the County Chairs themselves. Once that happens, of course, they owe something to the chairs, so they keep re-electing them.
Now you might have noticed that in this system, the State Committee members and judicial convention delegates have effectively zero decision-making power. Their entire function is to obfuscate the system so that people can't tell what's going on, and give it a veneer of legitimacy. So why do they bother? What do they get out of it? Besides a chance for some kinky sex in an Albany motel, that is?
The most ambitious of these people are candidates for higher office. By attending the State Committee and the judicial nominating convention, they have a chance to prove their loyalty to their patrons. This marks their place in the hierarchy, and then when vacancies come up for elected positions, including judgeships, they may be chosen by the county or state chair to be the party's candidate and not have to collect petitions. The less ambitious people, or the ones marking time in between elected terms of office, are rewarded for their loyalty with powerful roles on the boards of government authorities, and sinecures at well-connected nonprofits and corporations.
The State Court of Appeals is actually nominated in a slightly cleaner way, by the state's Commission on Judicial Nomination, whose commissioners are nominated by the Governor, the Chief Judge and the majority and minority leaders of the two legislative chambers. Of course, how the legislative leaders get elected isn't exactly clean either, but it's a slight improvement.
So the next time you hear, "State Supreme Court Judge," remember that they're essentially appointed by the county party chairs. And the next time you hear about a scandal involving a county party chair, think about how many judges that chair has selected.