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
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
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.