Sunday, February 13, 2011

New York Takes Bold Step on Cash in Judicial Races by William Glaberson -

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New York’s top court officials will bar the state’s hundreds of elected judges from hearing cases involving lawyers and others who make significant contributions to their campaigns, a move that will change the political culture of courts and transform judicial elections by removing an important incentive lawyers have for contributing.

Campaign fund-raising of the more than 700 trial-level judges around the state who are elected has been a persistent source of complaints and allegations of corruption, with some judges doling out lucrative assignments to lawyers who were political contributors.
The decision takes the form of a new rule of the state court system and will be announced on Tuesday by Jonathan Lippman, the state’s chief judge. It is believed to be the most restrictive in the country, bluntly tackling an issue —money in judicial politics — that has drawn widespread attention.
The rule is more restrictive than similar measures adopted recently in Washington, Oklahoma, Michigan and other states, and would take the question of disqualification entirely out of judges’ hands. It flatly states that “no case shall be assigned” by court administrators to a judge when the lawyers or any of the participants involved donated $2,500 or more in the preceding two years, court officials said.
Judge Lippman, who promoted the adoption of the measure by a statewide judicial board, said in an interview that the rule was critical to preserve the integrity of the state’s courts. “Nothing could be more important for the judiciary than to have the public see that we’re neutral arbiters of disputes,” he said. “If we don’t have that, we don’t have anything.”
Judge Lippman will make the announcement and detail specifics of the rule at his annual State of the Judiciary speech in Albany on Tuesday. It was adopted on Feb. 1 by the Administrative Board of the Courts, a five-judge body that has broad rule-making authority. Court officials said that, to permit comment, the rule would not become final for 60 days.
One of the recent campaigns that drew attention to the issue was a 2008 three-way Democratic race for Surrogate’s Court in Manhattan in which the candidates raised nearly $900,000. The winner, Nora S. Anderson, was indicted and then acquitted of campaign finance violations after taking $250,000 from a Brooklyn lawyer for whom she had worked.
The issue has been less intense in New York than in many states that have had multimillion-dollar political campaigns for top courts because the judges on New York’s highest court are appointed rather than elected.
Judicial politics in New York State and New York City are byzantine, with the political parties often controlling the nomination process. But even uncontested elections in the city can cost $25,000 or more, with judges hiring campaign consultants and paying for campaign events and mailings. Of about 1,140 full-time trial judges in the state, about 730 are elected, including judges in the powerful Surrogate’s Court and the highest-level trial court, the State Supreme Court, which can hear cases worth hundreds of millions of dollars.
Primary contests for judicial positions that pay $136,000 or less have cost $250,000 or more. In some upstate counties it is routine for candidates for the bench to raise $100,000 or more, partly to pay for television advertisements to create name recognition.
In New York City there have been widespread allegations that the political consultants in judicial races are so closely tied to political organizations in some boroughs that their fees have essentially become the price of a judgeship. But a series of judicial scandals in Brooklyn and a challenge to New York’s method of judicial selection that failed in theUnited States Supreme Court left the system of financing judicial campaigns largely untouched.
In 2005, a Surrogate’s Court judge in Brooklyn, Michael H. Feinberg, was removed partly for awarding $9 million in legal fees from estates to a friend who was a political contributor. In 2008, a Rochester City Court judge who was running for State Supreme Court was admonished for asking a lawyer who appeared before her for political backing from the bench, though she did not ask for a contribution.
There have been disputes, including one that reached the Supreme Court, over the influence of political contributors in multimillion-dollar judicial races in West Virginia, Illinois, Alabama, Pennsylvania and other states.
In New York, for much of the last decade there have been calls for change, including in 2003 from a commission appointed by the previous chief judge, Judith S. Kaye. Its report described “the problematic nature of having judges raise money from the lawyers that appear before them.”
Lawyers have long been the main contributors in judicial campaigns in New York, and, in some instances, the reasons were evident. One study in 1998 of two powerful Surrogate’s Court judges in the city who are no longer in office showed that lucrative appointments for legal work went to campaign contributors in 66 percent of one judge’s cases and in 54 percent of the other’s.
The national drive for scrutiny of contributions to judicial campaigns gained momentum after a 2009 Supreme Court ruling that said the chief justice of the West Virginia Supreme Court had wrongly ruled in the $50 million case of a coal company whose chief executive had spent $3 million to help elect him.
But the New York rule is more stringent than even what many critics of the judiciary have proposed. Court officials said they planned to use computer programs to compare the names of lawyers and other people involved in cases against public records of contributions to judicial candidates. If contributions of more than $2,500 over two years are found, the case would be assigned to a different judge.
It could be a disciplinary offense or create a ground to appeal if a judge were to handle a case involving a contributor.
The statewide judiciary board consists of the chief judge and the presiding justices of each of the state’s four intermediate appeals courts, and it has the authority to adopt rules without public comment.
Around the country, some judges have defeated efforts to force them to disqualify themselves over political contributions, saying it is a precept of judicial independence that judges decide whether they can rule fairly. In New York State that argument has had special resonance among some judges who say that the court system’s administration has increasingly encroached on their powers.
But critics of the judicial campaign finance system have been saying that the courts have been tainted by a political culture that permits lawyers to try to gain influence with judges by contributing to their campaigns. Sandy Galef, a Westchester County Democrat in the State Assembly, said she had been frustrated about the fate of a bill she has filed for years to require judges to recuse themselves in cases involving political contributors, including lawyers.
The bill never attracted much interest in the Legislature, said Ms. Galef, a former schoolteacher. “Maybe,” she added, “one of the problems is we have a lot of attorneys.”