WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court unanimously upheld New York's unique system of
choosing trial judges today, setting aside critics' concerns that political
party bosses control the system.
"A political party has a First Amendment right to limit its membership as it
wishes and to choose a candidate-selection process that will in its view produce
the nominee who best represents its political platform," Justice Antonin Scalia
wrote for the Court in New
York State Board of Elections v. Lopez Torres.
In New York, primary voters elect convention delegates who choose candidates
for the judgeships. Once nominated, those candidates run on the general election
ballot. In practice, they frequently have no opposition.
Unsuccessful candidates for judgeships and a watchdog group filed a lawsuit
challenging the system. A federal district judge and the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court
of Appeals agreed that it was very difficult for candidates to get on the ballot
if they don't have support of the party leaders.
In striking down the system, the two lower courts said judgeship candidates
who were not the choice of the party leaders were excluded from elections by an
onerous process that violated their First Amendment rights.
The high court today reversed the lower courts.
Scalia said there was nothing unconstitutional about the process. The
system's opponents "complain not of the state law, but of the voters' (and their
elected delegates') preference for the choices of the party leadership," Scalia
He said the state Legislature is free to return to a primary if it
Justice John Paul Stevens chimed in with a brief opinion distinguishing
between a constitutional system and wise public policy, resorting to the words
of former Justice Thurgood Marshall. "The Constitution does not prohibit
legislatures from enacting stupid laws," Stevens said, quoting Marshall.
Critics have said the conventions are patronage-driven affairs in which
allies of party leaders are rewarded with judgeships and all others are shut
The appeals court said that between 1990 and 2002, almost half the state's
elections for Supreme Court justice — trial judges in New York's judiciary
system — were uncontested, calling them "little more than ceremony."
The appeals court ordered the state to dispense with the conventions and
switch to primary elections until state lawmakers came up with a new plan. Many
legal and civic groups have come out in favor of appointing judges in New
The U.S. Supreme 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.
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.