Communications Office:
David Bookstaver, Director
Mai Yee, Assistant Director
(212) 428-2500

Date: December 3, 2003

Seal of the Unified Court System
www.nycourts.gov
Commission to Foster Public Confidence in Judicial Elections Provides Court System with Blueprint for Reform

NEW YORK - Finding considerable evidence that the public’s trust in New York’s judiciary has been damaged by how judicial elections are being conducted, the Commission to Promote Public Confidence in Judicial Elections today released an interim report urging the court system to implement measures to promote ethical campaign practices and reaffirm public confidence in the elective system. The Commission, appointed by Chief Judge Judith S. Kaye earlier this year to address flagging public confidence in the integrity of judicial elections and headed by John D. Feerick, former Dean of Fordham Law School and Chair of the New York State Commission on Government Integrity, concludes that voters in many areas of the state believe that they have little or no say in who becomes a judge in the current elective system. Furthermore, the Commission found that judicial campaign fund raising and spending practices are seriously eroding public confidence in the integrity and impartiality of judges, as evidenced by a Marist Poll undertaken for the Commission, which indicates an alarming 83 percent of New York voters believe that campaign contributions have some or a great deal of influence on judges’ decisions.

Those surveyed in the Marist Poll also believed that political party leaders, campaign contributors and special interest groups have more influence over who becomes a judge than voters themselves. Additionally, 87 percent of New York voters indicated that they thought judges should not be allowed to rule in cases when one of the parties has contributed money to the judge’s campaign. The goal of the survey was to measure the perceptions of registered voters in New York about judges and judicial elections in the state and was conducted by the Marist College Institute for Public Opinion in October of this year. The report by the Commission to Foster Public Confidence in Judicial Elections recommends a series of reforms designed not only to strengthen existing rules governing how judicial campaigns are conducted, but also to provide the resources and create a climate likely to foster voluntarily compliance with high standards of conduct, which in the Commission’s view, is the most effective means of promoting ethical conduct by candidates. A key recommendation of the Commission is to establish a system of state-sponsored Independent Judicial Election Qualifications Commissions — the only such system of screening panels in the nation — to evaluate all candidates for elective judicial offices based on specific criteria and a publicly transparent screening process.

The Commission’s recommendations for bolstering existing ethical rules, many of which would be among the most rigorous in the country, include :

· Requiring that judges recuse themselves from handling cases in which a party made campaign contributions exceeding $500 within the last five years. Parties and their counsel would also be required to disclose campaign contributions.

· Mandating that judicial candidates file in a publicly searchable electronic format their campaign finance disclosures, including information about contributors.

· Prohibiting a candidate from paying more than $125 a ticket for a political dinner or function unless he or she obtains a statement certifying that the amount paid represents the proportionate cost of the function.

· Amending current rules to clarify that no candidate for public election to judicial office may permit the use of campaign contributions or personal funds to pay for goods or services for which fair market value was not received.

· Adopting commentary to judicial ethics rules to give judicial candidates greater guidance regarding prohibited and permissible campaign conduct, including examples.

Many of the Commission’s recommendations aim at fostering ethical conduct and educating the public about judicial elections, such as:

· Creating a Judicial Campaign Ethics Resource Center to help educate candidates, the public and the media about appropriate judicial campaign conduct. The center would operate a statewide toll-free hotline to immediately respond to candidates’ questions about their own campaign activity, provide a quick-response mechanism to answer more complex ethics questions within 48 hours, and develop and present judicial ethics seminars.

· Requiring through court rule that all candidates for judicial office participate in a campaign ethics course.

· Providing voter guides about judicial candidates to all registered voters in New York State through the mail and made available on the Internet.

“When citizens lack confidence in the ability of judges to act independently of political influence and self-interest or are apathetic about judicial elections because they believe party politics are the sole determinant of an election’s outcome, the role of the courts to function as a neutral and fair arbiter of society’s conflicts is seriously threatened,” said Chief Judge Kaye. “To be sure, the overwhelming majority of our elected judiciary are honest, hard-working individuals deserving of respect and commendation. But when the elective process itself appears riddled with potential for conflicts of interest or when actual abuses occur, the public’s perception of the entire judicial branch becomes jaundiced. To this end, I appointed the Commission to Foster Public Confidence in Judicial Elections earlier this year to recommend reforms to the judicial election process in New York, with the aim of inspiring increased public trust, as well as protecting against violations of this precious trust. After conducting public hearings on the subject in locations throughout the state and following intense study and deliberation on the part of the Commission’s mulitidisciplinary panel, the Commission has compiled an interim report, with recommendations that can be implemented in the short term to target weaknesses within the system. I am extremely grateful to Chairman Feerick and all the Commission members for providing a detailed plan to achieve a strengthened, more democratic judicial election process in New York.”

Commission Chair Feerick stated, “These recommendations reflect the Commission’s views of steps that may be taken in the short term to promote public trust and confidence in judicial elections. The recommendations are designed to anticipate and avoid problems, promote greater understanding of the courts, ensure that candidates for judicial positions are always well qualified and that the processes from which they come operate in ways that are worthy of public confidence. The recommendations represent a substantial consensus of the Commission, with some members taking issue with more than one recommendation. I have served on many commissions and committees in my 42 years as a lawyer but would be hard-pressed to recall a group who has worked harder than the members of this Commission. Our work will continue, since we have much to do in providing additional recommendations of ways to promote public confidence in judicial elections.”

The Commission will continue to examine the judicial elective process in New York, and in its full report will focus on recommendations requiring long-term implementation. The final report is scheduled for release in spring of 2004.

 
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