According to this story, a special counsel for Mayor Bill de Blasio has noted the difficulty of finding qualified applicants to fill interim posts on the New York City Civil Court. It’s not hard to see why. Candidates are guaranteed only one year on the bench, after which they must stand for election to keep their positions. But in New York’s byzantine judicial election system, which is largely run by party bosses and was once flatly characterized by Justice Stevens as “stupid,” excellent service on the bench for a year is no guarantee of future employment.
Consider the problem from the perspective of potential applicants. To move to the bench, those in private practice would have to give up their clients, essentially depleting years or decades of work in developing a book of business. It would be professionally negligent, if not career suicide, to allow all your clients to move on in return for a one-year gig on the bench. Potential applicants in the District Attorney’s office or Public Defender’s office might be able to extract themselves a bit more easily, but face similar risks in moving themselves back and forth from the bench. As a result, the pool of potential applicants is likely to contain near-retirees or lawyers without much business than it is high-quality attorneys in their prime.
New York, like other states, could resolve the problem by moving away from judicial elections altogether. Appointed judges would have more confidence in their ability to stay on the bench for a while, given good behavior.