Are Judges Elected or Appointed in NY State?

Judges of the New York State Court of Appeals listen to hearing arguments from a case on Thursday, Nov. 17, 2016 in Albany, N.Y. (Lori Van Buren / Times Union)

Judicial selection in the U.S. varies not only at state level, but also within court types. There are six standards of selection: partisan, nonpartisan, Michigan-Ohio, assisted appointment, gubernatorial appointment, and legislative elections. In New York, depending on the court, the method for selecting judges varies.

Contrary to popular belief, New York’s Supreme Court is not the highest court in the state, but is instead the lowest court in the state, with general jurisdiction in civil cases. The Supreme Court of  New York uses partisan elections when electing justices to 14-year terms. These candidates are chosen by the people at partisan nomination conventions. Partisan elections allow citizens to view a candidate’s political affiliation adjacent to their name on a ballet. In non-partisan elections, people cannot view a person’s political party alongside their name. These rules can be different in other states. In order to qualify for a position on New York’s Supreme Court, one must be a resident of New York and have practiced law in the state for ten years. Supreme Court judges, called “justices,” begin their term on January 1st after their election. New York County Courts elect judges in a similar process for 10-year terms. One must live in the correlating county and state, be at least 18 years of age, and have studied law in the area for at least five years.

There is an extensive process to figure out who will be the representatives in New York Supreme Court elections. Supreme court candidates compete in primary elections to determine the representative of the general party. Then, these candidates are chosen through the general election. Primary voters elect convention delegates, who later choose candidates for judgeships. Some believe this process is unconstitutional since it can become unpromising for party outsiders to obtain these positions. In 2008, the United States Supreme Court defended this system in a unanimous decision (New York Board of Elections v. Lopez Torres).

Giving people privilege and accountability is an advantage of the partisan election. People believe that this method upholds the true beliefs of democracy, since it allows people to have some say in the candidates chosen to be justices for New York. However, there are numerous reasons as to why this judicial system has been criticized due to political fundraisers and tactics candidates use to get noticed. Some believe this system calls for more change and transparency to ensure only qualified candidates get the role, especially in New York’s Supreme Court. 

At the appellate level, there is a different method for selecting judges.  Assisted appointment occurs through the use of a nomination committee and a judicial screening panel that qualifies candidates, to later be reviewed by a governor for appointment. The New York Supreme Court Appellate Division, the intermediate appellate court, also has justices appointed by the governor, using candidates recommended from committees. Similar to New York’s Supreme Court, judges serve 14-year terms in the New York Court of Appeals, our state’s highest court. As the highest court, candidates must be confirmed by the New York State Senate and renominated to remain on the Court. In addition, New York has several limited jurisdiction courts including New York District Courts, New York Family Courts, and more. Thus, a person has to know what kind of state judgeship an individual judge holds to be able to determine whether that person was elected or appointed.