Recommendations to Increase Public Confidence and Prevent
Conflicts of Interest in Judicial Races Detailed in Report to State’s Chief Judge
NEW YORK —After over a year of analyzing the reasons for flagging public confidence in New York’s judicial election process, a commission empaneled by the state’s Chief Judge is proposing a package of major reforms to reaffirm public trust and promote ethical and dignified judicial campaigns, including judicial retention elections, state-sponsored independent screening panels for judicial candidates, public financing of judges’ election campaigns and public access to candidates’ campaign finance information via the Internet. In its report to Chief Judge Judith S. Kaye, the Commission to Promote Public Confidence in Judicial Elections, headed by John D. Feerick, former Dean of Fordham Law School and Chair of the New York State Commission on Government Integrity, advocates a series of sweeping measures aimed at counteracting widespread public disillusionment with the manner in which New York State judges are selected. The reforms address challenges to public confidence in judicial elections occurring, not just in certain regions of the state, but throughout New York.
The dissatisfaction of both the general public and even judges themselves with New York’s current system for judicial elections was borne out in two polls undertaken by the Marist College Institute for Public Opinion on behalf of the Commission: the first polled more than 1,000 registered voters in New York, and the second surveyed over 1,000 of the state’s sitting judges. The following are some noteworthy findings from these surveys:
- 80 percent of New York voters believe that political parties have some or a great deal of influence over judicial decisions.
- 94 percent of voters believe campaign contributions have a little, some or a great deal of influence on the way judges decide court cases, while 45 percent of New York judges think campaign contributions influence judicial decisions to some degree.
- 42 percent of the state’s judges acknowledged that having to run for re-election exerts some or a great deal of influence on decisions made on the bench.
- The main reason nearly 60 percent of New Yorkers cited for not voting in a judicial election is lack of information about the judicial candidates.
The Commission’s recommendations focus on five aspects of New York’s current system of judicial elections that threaten public confidence: campaign activity, campaign finance, political party influence over candidate selection, lack of voter participation and lack of candidate diversity. The Commission’s key recommendations are:
- Instituting a system of retention elections under which incumbent judges running for re-election would be subject to non-competitive, nonpartisan elections one year before their term expires. Retention elections would reduce the need for sitting judges to engage in campaign fundraising, lessen their dependence on the support of local political party leaders to maintain their seat on the bench and minimize the likelihood of situations in which their impartiality would be called into question, such as deciding cases involving lawyers who have contributed to their campaign. Currently, 19 states nationwide employ some form of retention elections.
- Creating by either legislation or court rule a uniform system of Independent Judicial Election Qualification Commissions (IJEQC) in each of New York’s 12 judicial districts to pre-screen the qualifications of all candidates and requiring every candidate to participate in the screening process. IJEQC members would be appointed by the three branches of government, state and local bar associations and local government leaders and reflect the diversity of New York’s citizenry. IJEQCs would help ensure that judges are elected based on their qualifications and legal skills, rather than as a result of their political activity or ability to raise money.
- Implementing public campaign financing on a pilot basis in elections for Surrogate’s Courts throughout the state, as well as for all courts in certain jurisdictions in which competitive judicial races lead to increased spending by judicial candidates. Further, enacting legislation to allow localities to adopt voluntary public financing programs on their own initiative and creating a task force to study the outcome of the pilots before making recommendations on the feasibility of instituting voluntary public financing of all judicial races statewide. Among other benefits, public financing would help to increase the diversity of the state’s judges.
- Making campaign finance disclosure statements available on the Internet for easy public access and inspection, including the occupation and employer of any contributor. All state court judges would be required to electronically file campaign finance information with the Office of Court Administration, centralizing this critical data in one location and in an online searchable format. By bringing transparency to judges’ campaign finances, this measure would heighten accountability of judicial candidates, encourage ethical campaign activity, and facilitate enforcement of violations by governmental agencies.
- Publishing voter guides containing information about judicial candidates and the justice system on the Internet and mailing these to every household with a registered voter in order to promote voter participation in judges races and help citizens make meaningful ballot choices. The voter guides would provide a general overview of the courts in New York and specific information about the candidates, including current occupation, educational and professional history, any community or volunteer service, and an unedited personal statement, as well as the results of the Independent Judicial Election Qualification Commissions’ screening process for every judicial candidate.
- Creating a Web-based judicial directory that provides background information on all sitting judges in the state court system to improve public access to information on New York judges.
In accepting the Commission’s report, Chief Judge Kaye said, “The public must feel the utmost confidence that judges will act fairly and with integrity as neutral arbiters of disputes, free from political influence or motivation of personal gain; otherwise, the judiciary’s role in a democratic society is greatly diminished. Safeguarding this trust is critical to the mission of the courts, and if there are areas within our current system that house potential for conflicts, whether real or perceived, we must address them immediately. The Commission to Promote Public Confidence in Judicial Elections, a task force I appointed last year, has presented me with their report after a year-long intensive inquiry. Their recommendations are courageous and far-reaching and would dramatically transform the judicial election process in New York State. I offer my sincerest thanks to Chairman Feerick and all the Commission members for dedicating their talents and labors toward achieving a strengthened justice system for the people of New York.”
Chief Administrative Judge Jonathan Lippman stated, “The Commission to Promote Public Confidence in Judicial Elections has executed a comprehensive analysis of the judicial election process in New York, holding several public hearings on this topic across the state and enlisting the expertise of professionals to survey thousands of New Yorkers regarding their perceptions of judicial elections. This is the first time in New York’s history that the many complex and sometimes controversial aspects of judicial elections have been brought to the forefront of public dialogue, and to lead such a discussion, there has never been a more qualified, experienced and diverse panel: the Commission includes two former governor’s counsels, several former state legislators, current members of the judiciary, and representatives of academia, governmental monitoring agencies and the media. I thank Chairman Feerick and the Commission members for their most perceptive proposals, which will pave the way for significant reform in this critical area.”
Chairman Feerick commented, “The Commission found that every part of New York State is experiencing some form of threat to public confidence in judicial elections. Although the challenges may manifest in different ways depending on local culture, one message is clear: the threat to public confidence in judicial elections is pervasive. Our recommendations represent what we believe is the best way to promote public confidence in judicial elections. They are designed to anticipate and avoid problems, promote greater understanding of the courts and ensure that candidates for judicial positions are always well qualified and that processes from which they come operate in a way that promotes public confidence. We are now at one of those moments in time where government leaders have an opportunity to make these needed reforms. Protecting and enhancing the judiciary of New York State is worth it.”
The report of the Commission to Promote Public Confidence in Judicial Elections is available online at www.nycourts.gov/press.