A Push to Stop the Buying of Judgeships

If New York’s top court officials have their way, elected judges will be prohibited from accepting campaign contributions from lawyers who have substantial cases before them.

It’s about time. This is a great move in the right direction to eliminate the possibility of corruption. The judiciary has finally awakened to the fact that, in an age of expensive election campaigns, it’s vital that the process of electing judges be policed.

The state's chief judge, Jonathan Lippman, should be congratulated for taking decisive action to clean up the election process. He has introduced a new rule, believed to be the most restrictive in the country, to confront the issue of money in judicial politics.

The Times reports

that the new rule will require that "no case shall be assigned" by court administrators to a judge when the lawyer or any of the participants involved donated $2,500 or more to that judge’s campaign in the preceding two years.

Judge Lippman says: "Nothing could be more important for the judiciary than to have the public see that we’re neutral arbiters of disputes. If we don’t have that, we don’t have anything."

As the Times points out, political consultants in judicial races are closely tied to political organizations -- and sometimes, the consultants' fees have become, in effect, the price of a judgeship. This is outrageous -- and should be outlawed.

One Surrogate’s Court judge in Brooklyn was removed partly for awarding $9 million in legal fees from estates to a friend who was a political contributor. Of about 1,140 trial judges in the state, about 730 are elected. The State Supreme Court, whose justices are elected, hears cases involving hundreds of millions of dollars.

Assemblywoman Sandy Galef of Westchester has been waging a one-woman crusade since 2003 to pass a law limiting campaign contributions by attorneys to candidates for judgeships. Her bill has never made it out of committee, she told me, and "perhaps that's because most of my colleagues are attorneys."

The assemblywoman adds that, "in this age of computers, campaign contributions are readily seen on websites. I think we need independent commissions to select judicial candidates or public financing of campaigns. I think Judge Lippman’s initiative is great."

Galef is a former schoolteacher. Maybe she’d be the person to hold a seminar on ethical behavior for attorneys and judicial candidates.

It’s amazing that it’s taken this long to address an issue as fundamental as this one. But better late than never. Sound ethical principles should prevail across the board -- in all three branches of government.

It’s an important step in the long process ahead to restore the people’s faith in government.

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