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Benchmarks: Journal of the New York State Unified Court System

Winter 2006

Feerick Commission Report Urges Overhaul of Convention System

Court of Appeals Approves Screening Panels

New York's elective judicial process may never be quite the same. Two recent developments were in the works for some time, but another caught even insiders by surprise.

As expected, Chief Judge Judith Kaye announced in her State of the Judiciary address Feb. 6 that the Court of Appeals had approved rules establishing independent screening panels for all elective judicial positions. Also as expected, she announced the release of the Feerick Commission's third and final report on judicial elections, which focused exclusively on the judicial nominating convention system. The Commission to Promote Public Confidence in Judicial Elections, chaired by former Fordham Law School Dean John D. Feerick, previously issued reports in December 2003 and June 2004.

The unexpected backdrop for both announcements, however, was the decision of a federal District Court just one week earlier that declared New York's convention system unconstitutional and enjoined its use, directing that primaries be held to choose candidates for the state Supreme Court until the legislature acts. However the developments in that case ultimately unfold, the new rules approved by the Court of Appeals and the latest commission recommendations also significantly affect the status quo.

The new rules, based on earlier Feerick Commission reports, create a statewide system of judicial election qualification commissions, independent bodies to evaluate early on all those seeking elective judicial office. The commissions will publish a list of those found qualified as well as those who declined to participate; the information will also be available in official voter guides. A 15-member commission will be established in each judicial district, with members appointed by the Chief Judge, the Presiding Justice of the respective Appellate Division, and bar associations.

The rules specify the following criteria for candidate evaluation: professional ability; character, independence and integrity; reputation for fairness and lack of bias; and temperament, including courtesy and patience.

The independent panels are intended to provide the public with a measure of confidence in the qualifications of judicial candidates, about whom the public generally knows very little.

The newly-adopted rules implement other recommendations from earlier Feerick Commission reports, including: limiting what judicial candidates may pay for tickets to political functions; prohibiting the use of campaign funds for campaign-related goods and services for which fair value was not received; requiring judicial candidates to complete a campaign ethics program; and reconciling state judicial conduct rules with recent U.S. Supreme Court cases involving campaign speech.

The latest report recommends changes in the convention system by which political parties select Supreme Court justice nominees. Currently, parties hold September primaries to elect delegates who meet and select the nominees who appear on the ballot. The commission found that this process reinforces public perception that delegates rubber-stamp the party leaders' choices. Absent public campaign financing, a costly direct primary system is not preferable because it undermines public confidence to see incumbent judges engaged in fundraising — potentially among lawyers who appear before them.

Instead, the report recommends amending the Election Law to make conventions a more open and deliberative process. Proposals to promote delegate independence and encourage candidates without party support include smaller conventions with fewer delegates; three-year terms; earlier delegate elections; more candidate information; and reduced petition requirements. The report is available at: www.nycourts.gov/reports.

Winter 2006 PDF Format
HTML Version:

State of the Judiciary Judicial Elections Report Summary Jury Trials Indigent Defense Services Multi-Hat Judge Matrimonial Commission Solo & Small Firm Practice Office of Self-Represented National Adoption Day Court Reporters Listening Conference Construction Update Historic Courthouses and Trials Did You Know? Judicial Institute Calendar UCS Katrina Fund Update Black History Month

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Web page updated: September 1, 2006 - www.NYCOURTS.gov