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Boro Republican joins suit to change judicial selection

A Belle Harbor man joined a handful of former judicial candidates and voters in filing suit last week against the state Board of Elections, charging that the election process for State Supreme Court judges takes the choice away from the public and gives it to political party leaders.

The suit claims the convention system of electing judges, which requires party delegates to nominate candidates for the bench, violates the rights of voters, candidates and political party members, making it unconstitutional.

The lawsuit was filed in federal court in Brooklyn last week by the Brennan Center of Justice at the New York University Law School on behalf of the 10 plaintiffs, most of whom are from Brooklyn. The Board of Elections declined to comment on the case.

John Macron, a Republican from Belle Harbor, is one of the plaintiffs.

“I feel that the ballot access is an important thing,” he said. “When the idea of the suit came up, I agreed that it was a very important matter.”

Macron ran for the City Council in 2001 on the Republican line, and he maintains the current judicial selection process would prevent him from reaching the ballot as a candidate for the State Supreme Court, although he has never approached the Queens Republican Party to seek a spot on the bench, he said.

In Queens, judges on the Supreme Court level are nominated by delegates at their party’s convention in September. The conventions are seemingly choreographed, with the chairman calling on pre-chosen delegates to make and second the nominations, the suit says.

And while any registered party member may run for delegate, the winners, voted for during the state primary election in September, are usually party favorites who do not have opposition, the suit says.

“Because of the county party leaders’ control over delegate selection, the nomination process at the convention is, with extremely rare exceptions, virtually all formalized procedure, with no substantive decision-making by the delegates,” the suit claims. “The participants follow a consistent, almost scripted format, from which they rarely deviate.”

But political leaders in Queens defended the delegate and convention system. Mike Reich, an executive board member for the Queens County Democratic Organization, said the delegate system allows for a more diverse convention.

“People who decide to run have to go through their community,” he said. “It gives you the ability to regionalize people so you have delegates from every community and ethnic background. Just as people vote to select their representatives, people are voting for the people to represent them within the party.”

Perry Reich, counsel to the Queens Republican Party and a member of its judicial selection committee, cited Suffolk County and Manhattan, where judicial delegates do face contested races.

“Their conventions are not fore-gone conclusions,” he said.

The lawsuit also claims that since the conventions are seemingly just a formality, the general elections are as well. Parties across the state often cross-endorse candidates, giving voters just one choice. Hopeful judicial candidates are not allowed to petition onto the ballot as are other elected officials.

In New York City, for example, only five of the 221 Supreme Court elections between 1990 and 2002 could be considered competitive, the suit charges. The figures are even slimmer in Queens, where candidates nominated by the Democratic machine have won every election since at least 1990.

The suit seeks a 90-day injunction to allow the state Legislature to replace the system, including provisions for direct primary elections for Supreme Court and the opportunity for candidates to secure a place on the ballot by petition, the suit says.

“The current selection system robs voters of their constitutional right to choose their Supreme Court justices and destroys their faith in the judiciary,” said Jeremy Creelan, attorney for the plaintiffs. “By shining a bright light on the sham ‘election’ system, the lawsuit filed today seeks to reform the system within the existing constitutional framework.”

Reach reporter Courtney Dentch by e-mail at news@timesledger.com, or by phone at 718-229-0300, Ext. 138.

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