Campaign Contributors, Cuomo and Judges - NBC New York

Campaign Contributors, Cuomo and Judges

Should big-time political donors sit on judicial screening committees?



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    Is the way we select our judges the best way to arrive at a judiciary chosen from a wide spectrum of the population?

    Who judges the judges? To a great extent it’s the governor and this governor is getting a lot of help from some wealthy supporters who have contributed handsomely to his campaign.

    Governor Cuomo has made campaign finance reform a pillar of his reform agenda.  The Daily News reports, that half the people -- 11 of 22 -- he has appointed to judicial screening committees contributed $446,000 to Cuomo.        
    Does this cast a bad light on the Governor’s reform intentions?
    Two reformers say: not necessarily.  Professor Doug Muzzio of Baruch College told me: “The way we run elections, candidates have to raise money.  People don’t donate money simply because they  want to be liked. The question is: is there a quid pro quo? And what is it? Unless it results in putting poorly qualified people on the bench the process can’t be condemned.”  
    Susan Lerner of Common Cause said: “If being a contributor is the sole qualification for being a committee member, that’s wrong. But the public does expect that the pool of candidates for judgeships be large and varied.”
    Among Cuomo’s appointees are Abby Milstein, a founding partner of the Constantine Cannon law firm, according to the Daily News' Kenneth Lovett. . Milstein contributed $50,000 to Cuomo. Her husband, developer Howard Milstein, also donated $50,000 to Cuomo and was named recently to head the State Thruway Authority.
    The News says there’s nothing unusual about governors “rewarding  donors and cronies with plum appointments.”   But, the News note, these appointments “raised eyebrows, given his repeated vows to ‘bring a different tone and a different attitude’ to Albany.”
    For generations, Americans have wrestled with the problem of how to keep the choices of judges pure. For some years the idea was that judges should be elected democratically. Ultimately, advocates of judicial reform decided the best method -- to guard against corruption and ensure competence -- was to have experts appointed by the chief executive nominate candidates for judgeships.

    Then the chief executive -- in this case the governor -- would choose the judges from this pool.         
    Is there a danger in having contributors serve on these selection panels?
    The philosopher Plato advocated a system where the nation would be ruled by a philosopher-king, chosen after many years in an academy where he was cut off from any outside influences or relationships. 
    This incubator approach seems impractical in today’s society. On the other hand, Cuomo’s method of choosing judges may be too elitist and not above political influence.

    Certainly, if we are concerned with having a judiciary chosen from a wide spectrum of the population, we may have to go back to the drawing board.