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Justices uphold N.Y. judge system

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New York's system of electing state Supreme Court judges may be far from ideal, but it is not unconstitutional, the nation's highest court said Wednesday in a unanimous ruling that was welcomed by political party leaders.

The U.S. Supreme Court's decision was in response to a 2004 lawsuit filed by Brooklyn Surrogate Court Judge Margarita Lopez Torres, who said she was denied the Democratic Party nomination to a State Supreme Court seat because she refused to hire a politically connected lawyer as her law secretary.

Torres argued that New York's system of having judicial candidates essentially handpicked by party bosses violated voters' 1st Amendment rights.

Unlike in lower courts, where judicial candidates can challenge party nominees in primaries, State Supreme Court candidates are chosen by delegates at party nomination conventions. The delegates generally rubber-stamp the choice of the party leader, and the outcomes cannot be challenged in a primary.

In a 2006 decision in U.S. District Court, Judge John Gleeson agreed that the system was "an opaque, undemocratic one" and ordered it overturned. An appeals court upheld his decision.

But in its decision Wednesday, the U.S. Supreme Court said that, while the system may be unwise, it does not violate the Constitution.

Quoting former Justice Thurgood Marshall, Justice John Paul Stevens wrote: "The Constitution does not prohibit legislatures from enacting stupid laws." The decision said lawmakers were free to change to a primary system.

Suffolk Democratic Party Chairman Richard Schaffer said he was happy with the court's decision, and stood by the existing system of selecting judges as fair and democratic.

Schaffer said party leaders do not take their role in the process lightly, and seek input from bar associations and town political committees in making their choices. "I don't operate it as a closed kind of power broker process. I've tried to make it as open as possible," he said.

Former Acting State Supreme Court Justice Michael Mullen said that, though the system may pass constitutional muster, it is patently unfair. During his 20-year judicial career, Mullen was unable to be elected to the State Supreme Court, in part because a former Conservative Party leader refused to endorse Mullen, who once ruled against him in a civil case.

In a statement, Torres' legal team said it was considering "further litigation options."

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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