When election season rolls around, voters do not usually pay much attention to judicial races. But a contested primary in Brooklyn this year is shaking up the system — a system some critics say illustrates political patronage at its worst. NY1's Bobby Cuza has the story.
New York voters generally have little information to go on when it comes to choosing judges, and often they have no choice at all.
That's because candidates are essentially picked by local Democratic Party leaders like Brooklyn party boss Frank Seddio. The party's muscle ensures that those without its backing usually don't bother running at all.
"Most of the people who run for judge in New York City are not opposed," said Gary Tilzer of Spokesman for Challengers.
But this year, Tilzer, a Brooklyn political operative, is trying to buck the system, putting together a slate of five candidates for civil court judge.
Another candidate, Ellen Edwards, is also running, giving voters in September's Democratic primary perhaps unprecedented choice: 12 candidates for six available slots.
"We're trying something different in Brooklyn this year," Tilzer said. "We're trying to say, 'We're independent of the machine.'"
One challenger, John O'Hara, was convicted of voter fraud in a high-profile case in 1997 for using a false address.
Earlier this year, his conviction was overturned. Still, some Democratic Party loyalists have questioned the credentials of O'Hara and his fellow challengers. The party's candidates are screened and approved by an independent panel; four of these five were not.
But they have gotten the attention of Seddio, who recently sent out a plea for support of the party's candidates, writing, "We face a serious challenge to their election by a group of individuals who have no other interest than their own personal needs."
"It is absolutely political horse-trading," said Susan Lerner of Common Cause NY.
Good-government groups, meanwhile, have long sought to reform the process. Common Cause was party to a landmark lawsuit in which onetime Brooklyn civil court judge Margarita Lopez Torres challenged party control of the nominating process.
The U.S. Supreme Court in 2008 found New York's system unwise but not unconstitutional, with Justice John Paul Stevens writing at the time, "The constitution does not prohibit legislatures from enacting stupid laws."
"The political parties choose the judges, not the voters," Lerner said. "That's not the way it should be."