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U.S. Judge Overturns New York State Judicial Election Process in Brennan Center Lawsuit

January 27, 2006

For Immediate Release
Friday, January 27, 2006

Contact Information:
Dorothy Benz, 212 998–6318
Jeremy Creelan, 212 992–8642 or 917 693–9620

Federal Court Halts Undemocratic System of Selecting NYS Judges
Preliminary Injunction Ruling Takes Control Away from Party Bosses and Empowers Voters to Select Their Partys Nominees for Trial Court

Brooklyn, New York Today, U.S. District Court Judge John Gleeson in Brooklyn granted a motion for preliminary injunctive relief in Lopez Torres v. New York State Board of Elections. The Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law, together with counsel Arnold & Porter LLP, argued that New Yorks unique convention system—used by the political parties to select their judicial nominees—deprives New Yorkers of their right to cast a meaningful vote for trial court judges.

In its decision, the Court enjoined the State from using the existing judicial convention system to nominate candidates for Supreme Court Justice. Until the New York legislature enacts another electoral scheme, the Court ordered, such nominations shall be made by primary election. Although preliminary and subject to appeal, todays ruling grants voters relief from a system that gives party bosses virtually complete control over the selection process and is an election in name only.

This ruling is a victory for the voters of New York State, said Frederick A.O. Schwarz, Jr. co-lead counsel in the case and senior counsel for the Brennan Center. New Yorks Constitution gives the people the right to elect the States principal trial court judges. After more than 100 years of domination by party leaders, the voters will have a meaningful say in the process.

In finding this closed system unconstitutional under the First and Fourteenth Amendments, Judge Gleeson has not only righted a significant wrong, said co-lead counsel Jeremy Creelan of the Brennan Center, he has also strengthened our judiciary. Under the current system, judges are beholden to party leaders and many well-qualified lawyers are never even considered for judgeships because they have no ties to party leaders. By allowing well-qualified candidates for Supreme Court who do not have such ties to compete for their partys nomination, this ruling will help restore confidence in our courts ability to dispense justice fairly and impartially.

The Brennan Center had filed the case in March of 2004 on behalf of several plaintiffs, including Civil Court (now Surrogate Court) Judge Margarita Lopez Torres, Common Cause/NY, and several voters across the State. The named defendant is the New York State Board of Elections. The Association of Supreme Court Justices, the New York County Democratic Committee, and the New York State Republican Party all intervened as defendants to defend the status quo. The preliminary injunction hearing lasted over a month in the fall of 2004, and the parties have awaited a decision since that time.

At issue in the lawsuit is New Yorks uniquely closed judicial nominating conventions. Of the 33 states that elect judges to their trial courts of general jurisdiction in contestable elections, New York is the only one that nominates candidates through a convention system. The system effectively allows party leaders to handpick their partys nominees by controlling who becomes a delegate to the convention. The number of signatures that a prospective judicial candidate must obtain from every assembly district is so large that it is virtually impossible for anyone to collect them all without party support.

Key Documents
Decision Map (Appendix)
Fact Sheet
Lopez Torres v. NYS Board of Elections webpage