Editorial: Party bosses block fair election of judges

In the recent election for two Nassau District Court judges in the 3rd District, William Hohauser received 19,086 votes as a Democrat, 18,772 as a Republican and 2,798 as a Conservative on election night.

David Levine received similar totals as a Democrat, Republican and Conservative.

Running on the Working Families line, Lisa Salzman received 2,181 votes.

These vote totals in the 3rd District were what one might expect of the Soviet Union in the 1980s.

But they were actually the closest of all the judicial elections held in Nassau County in 2021.

In races for eight justice spots on the New York Supreme Court, which carry a $210,900-a-year salary and a 14-year term, none of the eight candidates were opposed. All were endorsed by the Republican, Democratic and Conservative parties.

The same was true for the one Family Court judge, the District Court judge for the 2nd District, and the District Court Judge for the 4th District.

So much for free and fair elections.

Even though state law calls for voters to choose these judges, the decision was actually made months before by leaders of the Democratic, Republican and Conservative parties when they decided to cross-endorse the candidates.

“It’s deplorable,” James Gardner, a distinguished professor at the University at Buffalo School of Law who researches elections, told Newsday. “It’s collusive behavior by political parties that undermines democratic choice. It’s a complete perversion of the process.”

The cross-endorsements effectively put the selection of judges in the hands of two party bosses – Jay Jacobs, the longtime state and Nassau County Democratic chairman, and Joe Cairo, the chairman of the Republican Party and a practicing lawyer.

This leaves nearly 30 percent of voters completely out of the mix since only 71 percent of Nassau voters are registered Democrats or Republicans. Democrats lead with 40 percent, followed by Republicans with 31 percent and then “blanks,” people with no party affiliation, at 25 percent.

To no one’s surprise, Jacobs defended the cross-endorsements.

“Supreme Court candidates are not permitted to really campaign on any issues, so the public doesn’t really have a particular choice based upon issues like you would have in a normal election,” Jacobs told Newsday. “The outcome was determined not by the individual, but by the ups and downs of that particular party’s success in a given year.”

Jacobs certainly knows something about the ups and downs of a particular party in a given year.

Excluding the judicial races, Democrats went 13 for 45 in city, town and county races – a winning percentage of .290 in the recent Nassau elections. The New York Mets, by contrast, went 77 and 85, a winning percentage of .475. And the manager, Luis Rojas, got fired.

In Nassau, the elections included the loss of all four countywide positions including incumbent County Executive Laura Curran – even though Democrats had a nearly 100,000 edge over Republicans in the number of registered voters.

Jacobs does have a point about Supreme Court candidates not being permitted to really campaign on any issues under state ethics laws.

We stipulate now that candidates given the opportunity to campaign would all claim to be tough but fair, support law and order, follow the Constitution and just call balls and strikes.

But in exactly what election were Jacobs and Cairo selected to replace voters in making the choice over such crucial positions?

State Supreme Court justices, according to a Newsday account, “have the power to fill jobs in the courts and award guardianships and other lucrative duties to attorneys in what critics call one of the largest remaining patronage systems for county political parties.”

And critics such as Gardner said a judicial election “is not a referendum on merit. You have to be a party loyalist and there is something to be said for that, up to a point … Merit should be a very high consideration and I don’t think partisan elections have ever been a way to produce meritorious candidates for the bench.”

And by working together on choosing the judicial candidates, Cairo and Jacobs add another way to bolster their respective political parties – at the expense of independents and all other political parties.

The two parties already get to split control – and the more than $17.8 million in salaries – for the Nassau County Board of Elections. That’s right. The share of the money that goes to Conservative and Working Families Party members and those who are not registered? Zero.

In this, we’ve entrusted the oversight of our elections to the only agency in the state intentionally and legally set up to be a patronage organization. The Board of Elections should be run as a professional organization, not a slush fund for party loyalists.

There are actually worse counties than Nassau with its duopoly of Republicans and Democrats,

In Queens County, the Republican Party hardly exists so winning the support of the Democratic Party in any election, including those for judge, effectively guarantees election. Queens Democratic leaders think this is an excellent system.

There are other ways to pick judges. In New York state, some judges are selected by the governor with the approval of the state Legislature.

We think former Gov. Andrew Cuomo made an excellent choice in appointing Nassau County District Attorney Madeline Singas to the New York Court of Appeals, the highest court in the state.

But the idea of having the governor and the Legislature in control of court appointments has lost at least some of its luster since the former governor’s many scandals have become public, forcing him to resign.

And then there is the U.S. Supreme Court, whose justices are selected by the president and approved by a majority of the Senate, thanks to a change in voting rules initiated by then-Republican Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

The court’s approval rating has now fallen to 40 percent as its justices increasingly become seen as political.

Newsday reported on a Missouri nonpartisan court plan that uses a commission of citizens, attorneys and a judge to select three candidates to an open judgeship with the governor then naming one from the list.

After the judge has served for at least a year, the voters decide if that judge should continue in office.

For the moment, we will be withholding our vote for a better system and instead call for a state commission to study the issue.

We are confident though that almost any system they develop will be better than having two party bosses take the decision away from Nassau’s voters.

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