California makes its judicial elections marginally less awful

Governor Jerry Brown has signed a bill requiring judicial candidates in California to appear on the ballot with “actual government job titles” rather than fanciful designations designed to elicit emotional voter reaction.  In recent elections, candidates have sought and received ballot designations like “Child Molestation Prosecutor” and “Gang Murder Prosecutor.” Under the new law, candidates will have to list either their formal job titles (e.g., “City of Los Angeles Deputy City Attorney”) or provide a short, neutral description of their work (e.g., “Attorney at Law”).

The bill had broad bipartisan support, and it is not hard to see why. Allowing candidates to select their own designations may spur the voter reaction needed to win (who doesn’t love a “Gang Murder Prosecutor”?), but badly poisoned the impartiality and legitimacy of California’s elected judiciary. How could any criminal defendant hope for a fair trial before a judge who owed his election to that prosecutorial slogan? Even if the judge was able to transition to a mode of impartial decisionmaker — which many prosecutors have done with great success — who would believe it?

This was, then, an eminently sensible move. But Californians should hardly be complacent. The state’s more than 1500 trial judges are still chosen by popular election, and there is little reason to be confident that merely removing the most egregious designations from the ballot will improve matters much. Over the years, the state’s judicial elections have been poisoned by ethical lapses, the flow of money into campaign coffers, and political dog-whistling.  And there is an alternative: the state uses gubernatorial appointment to fill unexpected vacancies on the trial court (due, for example,  to death, retirement, or promotion), and that process that could be extended to all trial court selection. True, it would take a constitutional amendment, but many states have done just that over the past 70 years.

I am not holding my breath just yet. But until serious judicial election reform comes to the Golden State, Californians are merely editing out the worst excesses of a lousy system.

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Brooklyn judicial elections take an even more dismaying turn

This blog has been closely following the Democratic primary elections for county judge in Brooklyn, New York, where voters were forced to choose between candidates approved by the Democratic party machine and a group of “insurgents” running on an independent slate. The election took place earlier this month, and the results are … flabbergasting.

Continue reading “Brooklyn judicial elections take an even more dismaying turn”

More fallout from a heated Florida judicial election

In March, I flagged a story about Palm Beach County Judge Dana Santino, who was elected last November after running a particularly ugly campaign against his opponent, Gregg Lerman.  udge Santino ran ads suggesting that Lerman, a defense attorney, represents “murders, rapists, child molesters, and other criminals.” She was subsequently investigated by the Florida Judicial Qualifications Commission, and admitted to violating two canons of judicial ethics. The Commission has yet to issue a recommendation to the Florida Supreme Court about Judge Santino’s punishment, if any.

In the meantime, there has been an interesting ripple effect. It turns out that before her own election, Judge Santino briefly served as a campaign manager to another Palm Beach County judge, Circuit Judge Cheryl Caracuzzo. In light of this fact, Gregg Lerman (Santino’s former opponent) asked Judge Caracuzzo to recuse herself from all cases in which he was representing a party. Judge Caracuzzo agreed.

Although requested by Lerman, the recusal now makes things more complicated for his practice. There are fewer judges available to his clients, which may lead to more delays in the administration of justice.

All involved insist that there are no hard feelings about the earlier campaign. But judicial elections have these sort of ancillary (and ultimately predictable) effects. At minimum, a lawyer in Mr. Lerman’s shoes might think twice before seeking a judicial position in the future.

 

New York judicial candidate has spent over $33K from campaign coffers on other candidates and causes

Typically, critiques of money and judicial politics focus on the concern that donors to judicial campaigns will expect favors from a judge after election, compromising the judge’s impartiality.  In a bizarre twist, the Buffalo News reports on a judicial candidate who is spending her donors’ contributions on other, unrelated campaigns:

When local attorneys, business people and others donated a record amount of money to Acea M. Mosey’s campaign fund, they knew they were giving money to an experienced lawyer and Democratic Party stalwart running for Erie County Surrogate Court judge.

What they may not have known is that some of their donations – at least $33,393 – would go to political parties, political organizations and seekers of a wide variety of other political offices, including candidates for Congress, Erie County sheriff, the mayor of Buffalo and chairman of the Erie County Democratic Committee.

Mosey’s campaign organization, Mosey for Surrogate committee, this year has given money – either in donations or expenditures – to a total of 167 political candidates, parties and organizations, according to a Buffalo News analysis of state Elections Board records.

Mosey, by the way, has raised $900,000 for her judicial election campaign even though she is running unopposed.

Federal court: at-large voting for Louisiana judicial elections is unconstitutional

Earlier this year, I reported on a federal civil rights trial in Terrebonne Parish, Louisiana (the Baton Rouge area).  The plaintiffs alleged that the system used to elect judges in the state’s 32nd Judicial District was unconstitutional in that it disenfranchised minority voters.  In particular, plaintiffs alleged that the state’s “at-large” voting system, meaning that judges are chosen through a parish-wide vote even though each judge presides over a specific district.  The bench trial concluded at the end of April.

On Thursday, Judge Brady issued a 91-page ruling, concluding that the use of at-large voting in Terrebonne Parish unconstitutionally dilutes the voting power of black voters.  The actual remedy will be determined later through a series of conferences with parties and counsel.

The full story and reaction is here.

Brooklyn judicial candidates accuse local party chief of holding illegal fundraiser for their opponents

I have previously discussed the candidacies of five Brooklyn residents who are running for judge, but refuse to go through the selection system dominated by Democratic Party bosses. In the latest twist in the story, a spokesman for the five candidates has accused local party boss Frank Seddio of hosting a “illegal” fundraiser for the party’s preferred candidates on August 23.

Surely some of this is an effort to stay in the news cycle, but the accusations of spokesman Gary Tilzer are still damning:

Seddio, an attorney, sent the red, white and blue invite to more than 185 people — including sitting judges, judicial candidates, attorneys, developers, politicians, lobbyists and members of the Judicial Screening Committee. The invite vaguely touts fund-raising “to support our contested countywide candidates.”

It doesn’t specify the candidates who will benefit or the election that’s involved.

***

Guests were instructed to write their $500 to $5,000 checks out to the Kings County Democratic County Committee, an account that’s controlled by the Brooklyn Democratic Party, and mail them to Seddio’s home address, according to the letter.

Tilzer’s three-page letter to the committees said Seddio’s fund-raising efforts violate the Rules Governing Judicial Conduct and are unethical on seven points, including not disclosing who the event benefits, inviting sitting judges to contribute and, since the beneficiaries aren’t named, having judicial candidates raising money with potential nonjudicial candidates.

As I have noted before, those who are truly concerned about the influence of money in politics might want to start by shining a light on local hornet’s nests like these.

“Insurgent” judicial candidates in Brooklyn continue their fight against machine politics

In June, I flagged an interesting story of five judicial candidates in Brooklyn who are aggressively running against the Democratic Party machine. These candidates, led by John O’Hara (a lawyer with a colorful and checkered past), assert that the borough’s independent screening panel is really just an arm of the local Democratic Party, and subject to the wishes of party bosses. All but one of the insurgent candidates has refused to go before the panel .

With the primary about a month away, the New York Law Journal weighs in with an article that captures the essence of the insurgency, as well as the establishment position.  The crux of their claims: the party asserts that the 24-member screening panel simply determines candidates’ fitness for the bench, and expects no quid pro quo for the candidates it deems qualified. The O’Hara group alleges that the panel is essentially a mechanism for attorney members to receive future favors from the candidates they endorse.

I generally favor screening panels or nominating commissions as part of a comprehensive judicial selection process. But this challenge makes clear that if the panel itself is not seen as legitimate, neither will the judicial candidates it endorses. And New York has a long and unfortunate history of party boss control over the selection of local judges. We’ll see how it plays out at the September 12 primary.