Koch's Comments: Voters need choice

This despicable corruption must be rooted out and public confidence restored to our system of justice.

ed koch 88 (photo credit: )
ed koch 88
(photo credit: )
A Federal District Court judge recently struck down the method by which State Supreme court judges are selected in New York. These judges are picked by a state convention system instead of by primary elections, in effect permitting county political leaders to select which judicial candidates will appear on the ballot in November. Voters are thus deprived of a choice, which caused the federal judge to strike down the New York State system as unconstitutional. This week, the State Bar Association proposed a short-term reform: select judicial candidates by the same process used to select the governor. A proposed long-term solution requires a constitutional amendment and proposes an appointive system with screening committees recommending three candidates for each vacancy. The governor would then appoint one of the three to the bench. Not long ago, at a lunch held by the Federal Bar Council, US District Court Judge David Trager was given the prestigious Emory Buckner Medal. During his speech, Judge Trager - who when he was the dean of Brooklyn Law School served as the chairman of the committee selecting judicial candidates in New York City and presenting three nominees for each open position to the Mayor - described the process. Judge Trager said: "Having had the great pleasure of helping Ed Koch pick judges of integrity and ability, I would like to share some thoughts about the ongoing, sometimes-heated discussion on the subject of merit selection…My experience, of course, was with the appointive system, and that experience has taught me one thing, which is that the appointing power -- whether he or she be governor, senator, mayor or judge -- must be committed to merit selection or the system will fail. No system of advisory committees or nominating commissions will save the process. No matter how these bodies are set up and how stringent their rules, the system can be manipulated and can easily become the tool of interest groups. Indeed, from my experience, while these committees and commissions are often intended to insulate the appointing power from political pressure, in practice, they often prove to be counter-productive because they are used by the appointing powers to insulate themselves from public accountability. Advisory committees and nominating commissions are useful only when the appointing powers are committed to doing the right thing. "Ed Koch was committed to doing the right thing. Indeed, he was so committed that on occasion he took my breath away. I recall especially one instance when he was running for reelection and his reelection was not a certainty. I received a phone call from a county political leader whom I shall call Max. Max reminded me that the judicial candidate he was pushing for had been approved by the committee. In addition, I received calls from people working on Ed's campaign who urged me to use my influence with Ed on that candidate's behalf. "Now, I thought to myself that Ed had done a really good job as mayor, and his commitment to merit selection of judges was one significant reason why I, too, wanted to see him reelected. I, therefore, took it upon myself to do a little to help his reelection chances by trying to satisfy Max. With the support of other members of the committee who also wished to see Ed reelected, the committee supported Max's candidate by making sure that he was on the short list of three candidates that our committee rules required us to give to the mayor, and from which he would have to make his selection. Before doing so, the mayor would interview each of the three candidates. So the day came for the interviews and Max's candidate presented himself. After the interview, I explained to Ed all the political pressure that was being exerted on the candidate's behalf. Although I did not think this person was the strongest of candidates, nevertheless, I, too, urged Ed to appoint this person. I said: 'Ed, you've done such a great public service by your commitment to merit selection, you're entitled to one less-than-stellar appointment to advance your reelection prospects, particularly given the fact that he passed the committee before any of the members learned of his political support.' Ed's response was characteristically Ed, swift and to the point. 'He's an idiot. And I won't appoint him.' Even I, somewhat cynical by nature, found this rather unbelievable. Of course, the piece de resistance was Ed's next remark to me. As I was walking out of his office, Ed called out: 'David, call Max and try to calm him down and try to make peace.' This was not exactly my forte! "Now, Ed is very proud of his involvement in merit selection and considers it to be one of the three major achievements of his administration. He often cites -- as evidence of the strength of the process he put into place -- the fact that he appointed less than a majority of the members of the committee. He rightly believed that it added to the credibility of the process. But, unfortunately, the reality was different. I often had to deal with problems caused by some members appointed by outside groups or individuals. The loyalty of these appointees to the process was minimal. On occasion their agendas did not include merit selection at all. Indeed, it was the mayor's own appointees who knew of Ed's commitment and, whether they shared his commitment or not, they knew what he wanted and were the ones who made the process work. Ultimately, it was not Ed's Committee, but Ed's commitment, that mattered." This week, the Daily News revealed more information in what has become a state scandal -- the sale of judgeships. Governor Spitzer should appoint a Moreland Commission, which has subpoena power to examine that issue. This despicable corruption undermines our society. It must be rooted out and public confidence restored to our system of justice. * * * Previous entries: Prejudice in politics We must have allies in Iraq NY needs change George Bush is my hero