A Step Forward for New York Courts

New York adopted a new rule to disqualify judges based on conflicts of interest stemming from campaign cash.

June 28, 2011

Today, in a welcome move, the New York Office of Court Administration officially adopted new standards to disqualify judges based on conflicts of interest caused by judicial campaign spending. 

New York’s new Rule §151.1 establishes campaign contribution limits for lawyers and parties appearing before state judges, effective July 15, 2011. Under the rule, judges are prohibited from hearing the cases of parties or lawyers if they or their law firms have contributed more than $2,500 in the last two years (or if, collectively, the parties, lawyers or firms have contributed $3,500 in the last two years).

We commend New York for its strong leadership in recognizing the threats to judicial independence and impartiality that can arise when those who fund judicial election campaigns appear in court.

In February the Brennan Center and the Justice at Stake Campaign provided joint comments on the initial proposed rule, and advised New York to consider a mechanism to prevent abuse of the automatic disqualification rule. We are pleased that the final version of the rule contains a commitment consistent with our recommendation. As implemented, the new rule prevents manipulation of the judicial system by allowing a non-contributing party to waive a judge’s disqualification if the party believes the judge could be fair and impartial regardless of contributions to his campaign by the other parties. 

This reform is an important step in protecting the judiciary from the appearance of impropriety. No one should ever have to ask whether justice can be bought. Unfortunately the influx of money in judicial elections in many states contributes to the perception that justice is for sale to the highest bidder. Luckily, New York has not seen the same volume of outside spending in judicial elections as other states have. New York may need to adopt additional provisions to address concerns about independent expenditures if faced with runaway spending in future judicial campaigns. We remain confident that New York will continue to safeguard public trust in the judiciary, as it has committed to doing today.