Ask a Reporter is an occasional series about civic engagement in and around the city. Do you have a question about how you can make a difference in your neighborhood, city or state? What about voting, the elections or navigating civic life in New York? Ask us! We want to help you get involved by answering your questions.
Q: How do I find out more information about the judges on the ballot?
A: Trying to be an informed voter when it comes to choosing judges is… well... I’m just going to quote Susan Lerner, the executive director of Common Cause New York: “It’s torture.”
I feel your pain, responsible citizens. You want to know at least something about who you are voting for. Otherwise, you may abstain from voting for these candidates at all. I’m the same way.
Before I give you a bit of background about why New York’s system for choosing judges is so messed up, here are some practical steps you can take to find out more about judicial candidates:
First, check out this list of Primary Day candidates, posted by the New York City Board of Elections. There, you will see the candidates running for either county or district civil court judgeships. Find the judicial candidates in your district and county, if any (there may not be).
Next, Google the candidates! Many of them do have a website, media clips or at least a Facebook page. I realize this may seem like obvious advice but it did not occur to me to do it until I spoke with Denise Kronstadt, Deputy Director of the Fund for Modern Courts. (Thank you, Denise.)
For instance, in the contest in Manhattan’s 2nd Municipal Court District, you can find more than a few things about candidates Wendy Li and Robert Rosenthal. They have campaign websites and Twitter feeds, plus some local news coverage about them. According to the The Villager, there is an honest-to-goodness race going on between them.
Which brings me to the next point: when looking for some media coverage about these candidates, look around on your local rags. For instance, that Villager piece, mentioned above. Or the write-up of a town hall with judicial candidates in Brooklyn covered by the Brooklyn Eagle.
Another source for some information about the candidates is the New York City Bar Association. They have evaluated the candidates and deemed them as either qualified or not (noted as “approved” or “not approved”). You can also read more about the Bar Association’s method of evaluation.
Finally, you should know that there are a lot of advocates pushing to reform the New York court system, including the method of selecting judges. What’s particularly frustrating is that many of the judicial candidates you see on the ballot have already been selected by the local political parties.
Check out this WNYC story from 2016 on the problem with selecting judges for civil court. Kat Aaron, who reported the piece, noted that the judicial candidates are selected for voters by people called judicial delegates. They are generally party insiders, and they pick judicial candidates for the ballot at “judicial conventions” usually held in September.
The Brennan Center for Justice, in a candid post on their website, called these conventions “strictly for show.” And depending on your voting district, you may also be called upon to choose these delegates from a list of names on your ballot. But who are these potential delegates? The only way to prepare for this is to review a sample ballot, which you can find by looking up your polling site through the Board of Elections website, and start Googling. It’s a sign of how dysfunctional this system is that this is your best bet.
New York’s system for choosing judges was challenged in court but ultimately found constitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court. In his opinion, Justice John Paul Stevens quoted Thurgood Marshall and wrote, “The Constitution does not prohibit legislatures from enacting stupid laws.”
What questions do you have about civic participation in New York City that you’d like us to answer? Share them in the prompt below and we'll work to answer as many as we can.