WASHINGTON — Supreme Court justices said yesterday that New York’s system of
letting political bosses essentially pick trial judges does not appear to
violate the Constitution.
The Court heard arguments in a case brought by unsuccessful candidates for
judgeships and a watchdog group. Among the plaintiffs is a judge who said she
could not get the backing of local Democratic party leaders to move up to the
state’s top trial court because she refused to hire their choices to be her
The unique system has primary voters elect delegates to a convention that
then chooses candidates who most often run unopposed in the general
Two federal courts had struck down the system, saying judgeship candidates
who lack support from the party leaders are excluded from elections by an
onerous process that violates their First Amendment rights.
Critics have said the conventions are patronage-driven affairs in which
allies of party leaders are rewarded with judgeships and all others shut
The 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said that between 1990 and 2002 almost
half the state’s elections for Supreme Court justices — trial judges in New
York’s judiciary — were uncontested, calling them “little more than
The appeals court ordered the state to dispense with the conventions and
switch to primary elections until state lawmakers come up with a new plan. Many
legal and civic groups have come out in favor of appointing judges in New
The justices did not appear bothered by the lack of competition or voter
participation in the arcane nominating system.
“It’s a basic judgment not to have judges popularly elected,” conservative
Justice Antonin Scalia said.
Justice David Souter, a liberal, said he did not see a constitutional problem
in the ability of party bosses effectively to exclude some candidates. “For
political reasons, they’re saying, ‘We don’t like you,’” Souter said.
The Court previously has ruled that states can decide whether to use
conventions or primaries to nominate candidates. States also can choose to have
judges appointed rather than elected.
“Well, doesn’t that seem kind of odd, that if a state can have no role for
voters, it can have a pure convention, that they’re penalized if they have some
role for voters?” Chief Justice John Roberts said.
Margarita Lopez Torres became the lead plaintiff in the lawsuit after
Democratic leaders in Brooklyn blocked her from getting the party’s nomination
for a Supreme Court judgeship. She said the leaders turned against her shortly
after her election as a civil court judge when she would not hire people they
recommended. Three years later, Lopez Torres said they offered her a second
chance if she would hire a leader’s daughter. She refused.
The state, the Democratic and Republican parties and the elections board
joined to ask the high court to reverse the appeals court ruling. Former New
York Mayor Ed Koch was among a diverse group of politicians and legal groups
asking the Court to uphold the lower court rulings.
The state Legislature adopted the nominating conventions 86 years ago.
Lawmakers scrapped direct primaries for New York’s Supreme Court justices
because of the potentially corrupting influence of having prospective judges
raising campaign money. Other judges in New York are elected through
The plaintiffs have said the current system leads to cozy relationships among
judges, lawyers and politicians.
A decision is expected by June.
The case is New
York Board of Elections v. Torres, 06-766.