Cross-endorsements complicate the politics of picking a judge

State Supreme Court Judge Frederick J. Marshall is the only one of six major party candidates for judge in Western New York to receive the highest grade from the Erie County Bar Association and four other legal organizations that rate the region’s judicial candidates.

But when it came time for bosses of the Democratic and Republican parties to hand out the coveted “cross-endorsements” that give candidates a virtual free ride to victory, Marshall didn’t make the cut.

They did, however, award cross-endorsements to the former secretary of the Erie County Democratic Party who had the lowest Bar Association ranking of all the six candidates. Also getting that cross-endorsement nod were two candidates whom voters twice rejected in previous elections for state judge, including the brother of the former chairman of the Niagara County GOP.

Those cross-endorsements – especially the decision to snub a highly respected incumbent like Marshall – baffled and upset many attorneys in Western New York, including some who say the state’s system for choosing judges needs reform.

It’s wrong, those critics say, for a handful of political party bosses to sit in a closed door room and decide who will get 14-year terms as state judges, essentially taking that decision away from more than 930,000 registered voters in an eight-county area.

“It certainly doesn’t pass the smell test,” said James A. Gardner, a University at Buffalo Law School professor who teaches about election law and constitutional law. “I think cross-endorsements are terrible, an appalling defeat of the whole concept of democracy and self-rule.”

Richard G. Abbott, a Kenmore lawyer who used to serve on the Erie County Bar Association’s committee for screening candidates, said he was astonished when he heard Marshall had been bypassed.

“Cross-endorsements usually have been reserved for sitting judges who are well-respected in the legal community,” he said. “Judge Marshall certainly fills that bill.”

So why didn’t Marshall get cross-endorsed?

Erie County Republican Chairman Nicholas A. Langworthy said his loyalty is to his party, not to Marshall or any individual candidate.

“My goal is to pick the best candidates we have to win three seats,” he said.

With two other Republicans cross-endorsed and virtually certain to win, he said, “I felt Fred Marshall gives us the best chance to win the open seat. He’s an incredibly strong candidate … We’re going to do everything we can to help him win, and I believe he will win.”

And what qualified long-time Democratic Party activist Dennis E. Ward for cross-endorsement?

Erie County Democratic Chairman Jeremy J. Zellner said the former Erie County elections commissioner is a skilled, intelligent lawyer who has acted with integrity during a long political career.

Before he resigned last month as elections commissioner, Ward gave a $13,000 raise to his top aide on the Elections Board – Arthur O. Eve Jr. – just hours before Eve and several of Eve’s political allies voted in Ward’s favor at the judicial nomination convention.

Ward would not comment for this story. But he previously said: “There was no quid pro quo. I knew 80 to 85 percent of the delegates in that room, most for more than 10 years. It was not hard for them to vote for me.”

Both Langworthy and Zellner said they did not invent the cross-endorsement process, which has been used to pick judges throughout the state for decades.

“It’s not just me and Nick in a room,” Zellner said. “I’m not the all-powerful Oz, behind a curtain, picking these candidates. … I work within the system.”

But Buffalo attorney Dennis C. Vacco, who has been active in Republican Party politics for decades, is among lawyers who feel that system is broken.

“It doesn’t work anymore,” said Vacco, a former state attorney general. “A sitting judge who has been barred from any political involvement for 14 years should not be suddenly be forced to play in the political pond. It puts that judge at a disadvantage.”

Buffalo attorney Jim Ostrowski, a frequent critic of local politics, agrees.

“It’s preposterous,” he said “Some good people do get elected, but when it happens, it’s an accident. The choices are mostly based on who is politically wired, who knows whom, who raises the most money for the parties. It’s cronyism.”

Erie County Bar Association President Laurie S. Bloom also agrees that the process of cross-endorsing judges needs improvement.

Bar Association volunteers spend many hours investigating, interviewing and rating candidates for judgeships, she said. She said she doesn’t know if Democratic or Republican party leaders give any consideration at all to the ratings when choosing to cross-endorse candidates.