New York State has many different trial courts, most of which hear a specific type of case: civil court, criminal court, family court, housing court, etc. However, the trial court of “general jurisdiction” — the court that can hear any type of case and also the most important trial court in New York State — is called Supreme Court. Note: In most states, and in the Federal system, the Supreme Court is the highest appeals court. Not so in New York, where the highest appeals court is called the Court of Appeals.
Judges of New York’s many different courts get selected or elected in many different ways, and justices of the Supreme Court, the process may seem particularly complex. Especially in Manhattan, Democratic clubs are deeply involved in the process by way of Judicial Delegates.
The most simple way of looking at the Supreme Court process is that it is an election, like any other. On Election Day in November, Supreme Court justices will be on the ballot just like any other elected office, and whichever candidate gets the most votes gets the seat, just like any other elected office. However, in Manhattan — where Democrats almost always win — the race for Supreme Court Justice is often uncontested. As a result, the question of how one becomes the Democratic nominee for a Supreme Court seat is actually the most significant part of the process. And one becomes the Democratic nominee for a Supreme Court seat by the vote of Judicial Delegates at the county’s Judicial Nominating Convention.
Judicial Delegates must first be elected. Judicial Delegates are elected at the Democratic Primary on the regular primary day, which takes place in June — the same election as any other primary for local, city, state, or federal office. Voters can pick judicial delegates among individuals who have gathered enough petitions to appear on the ballot. As the petitioning process is challenging, and the position is unpaid and temporary, most candidates for Judicial Delegate come from Democratic Clubs, which traditionally petition for candidates up-and-down the ballot, and can easily add candidates for Judicial Delegate. Each Assembly District can elect a certain amount of Judicial Delegates based on turnout in the previous Governor’s race. In the past, the 66th Assembly District has from six to seventeen Judicial Delegates. The same number of Alternate Judicial Delegates are elected in case Judicial Delegates cannot perform their duties.
Clubs can cooperate to endorse the same suite of Judicial Delegates, in which case Delegates might run unopposed without need to appear on the ballots, or clubs can nominate their own suites of Delegates, in which case a large number of delegates can appear on the primary ballot, leaving voters with a choice.
In either case, the Democratic nominees are selected at a Judicial Nominating Convention attended by the elected Judicial Delegates. The Convention usually takes place in early August. For each open Supreme Court seat, the candidate who receives the most votes from the Judicial Delegates becomes the Democratic nominee for Supreme Court and will appear on the ballot in November — and, in all likelihood, will win.
There are a few other important things to know about the process. First, in Manhattan, judges go through an Independent Screening Panel, which will determine whether a judge is Qualified for the seat. (If a candidate has been deemed Qualified by the panel for two years in a row, they do not need to go through the panel process for the subsequent five years.) In Manhattan, only Qualified judges will be selected at the Convention.
Second, there are various informal ways Judicial Candidates get to know the candidates seeking to become a Democratic nominee for Supreme Court in advance of the Convention. For example, VID usually works with neighboring clubs to organize a Forum, at which each of the candidates speaks for a few minutes and answers questions. More recently, VID also attempts to arrange individual meetings the 66th Assembly District Judicial Delegates and each of the candidates. Candidates may reach out to Judicial Delegates to have one-on-one meetings, where they make a case for their candidacy. And candidates are likely to attend local social functions to get to know the community.
Lastly, the process of gaining the support of Judicial Delegates is highly political. Candidates will often network with Judicial Delegates and other politically involved community members to try to garner support in advance of the Convention. In fact, it is common for candidates to be so sure that they do or do not have enough support that no votes are actually taken at the Convention. Candidates who are confident they don’t have enough support will decline nominations from the floor of the Convention, and potentially only one candidate might accept for a given seat. However, it is also not uncommon for a “floor fight” to occur, where two candidates each believe they have sufficient support, and a formal vote by the Judicial Delegates determines the Democratic nominee for the seat.
VID endorses candidates for Judicial Delegates every year there is an open Supreme Court seat, which is almost every year. Because petitioning for Judicial Delegates (and all other primary races) begins in late February, the endorsement is usually held at either the January or February monthly meeting.
If you are interested in learning more about judicial selection methods in New York State, the New York City Bar Association created an excellent guide.
Questions? Contact [email protected]