Testimony to the Assembly Judiciary Committee on the Selection of NYS Supreme Court Justices

Citizens Union Testimony

to the Assembly Standing Committee on the Judiciary

Re: Selection of New York State Supreme Court Justices

Delivered by Doug Israel, Director of Public Policy and Advocacy

December 15, 2006


Good afternoon Chair Weinstein and members of the Committee on the Judiciary.  I am Doug Israel, Director of Public Policy and Advocacy for Citizens Union, a century-old good-government organization located in New York City.  We appreciate the opportunity to provide testimony today on such an important subject and look forward to further dialogue and discussion with your committee and the State Legislature on the matter.


Citizens Union has long held that the judicial selection process for Supreme Court justices in the State of New York is deeply flawed and in need of reform.  Historically, we have argued for a merit appointment process to replace the judicial convention system as the best means to assure that the most qualified judges are selected for all New York courts and that they are allowed to operate independently, without bias and with the highest of ethical standards.    


Over the past several months we have engaged in a reevaluation of our position in light of the decision handed down by Judge John Gleeson and the subsequent affirmation by the Second Circuit Court that the current judicial nominating convention process is unconstitutional.  We have sought the input of bar associations, legal defense groups, the New York City Mayor's Office, the Brennan Center for Justice and other relevant experts during our deliberations.


Today, I would like to share with you Citizens Union position on how the state should proceed in reforming the system for the selection of Supreme Court justices.  I am providing each of you with a copy of Citizens Union's "Statement of Position on Judicial Selection for Supreme Court Justices."  I do not plan to read the entire position statement to you but ask that you review the document as you deliberate on the issue.  I will, however, highlight the key points today and provide background and detail for some of our recommendations.


In summary, Citizens Union stands firm in its support for a merit-based appointment process to be created through constitutional amendment, but believes that the present situation dictates that an interim measure be crafted to address the constitutional questions raised by Judge Gleeson. 


Given this historic opportunity, Citizens Union, believes the following:


  1. The State Legislature should craft immediately and pass during the next two legislative sessions a constitutional amendment that if supported by the voters would put in place a merit-based appointment system for judges in all New York courts of record.
  2. That until such time as New Yorkers vote on a constitutional amendment, which at the earliest would be in 2009, legislation should be enacted concurrently to reform the troublesome Supreme Court nominating convention system by statutory means so as to address the constitutional issues outlined in the decision by Judge Gleeson.
  3. Direct primary elections are not a preferable reform of the convention process as a means of nominating Supreme Court justices and should not be allowed to take place as the default interim measure.


Beyond these basic principles Citizens Union feels it is important to address the proposals that have been advanced to reform the judicial selection system and provide substantive input into how these systems could be improved should they be implemented.  However, Citizens Union feels strongly that these measures should be considered as interim measures only until such a time as a constitutional amendment to establish a merit-based appointment process is established.


I would like to now take you through Citizens Union statement of position highlighting our key recommendations and the thought process behind them as detailed in the document.


Once again, thank you for this opportunity.