Ethics Hero: New York Courts


New York’s court officials have decided to bar New York’s elected judges from hearing cases involving lawyers and others who make major financial contributions to their campaigns. The New York Times reports that the new rule of the state court system will be announced this week by Jonathan Lippman, the state’s chief judge. “It is believed to be the most restrictive in the country, bluntly tackling an issue — money in judicial politics — that has drawn widespread attention,” said the paper.

The new rule decrees that “no case shall be assigned” by court administrators to a judge when the lawyers or any of the participants involved donated $2,500 or more in the preceding two years.

Of course this is a good rule, and it should be in place in every state that elects judges (not that there should be any such states). Lawyers appearing in front of judges they had given campaign contributions to, and litigants having important lawsuits before the same judges who had received money from them, both make the legal system look corrupt and rigged, as indeed it sometimes is. This will make it harder for judges to raise campaign funds, and the court system in the Empire State has taken a very principled, very significant step that will place pressure on other states to emulate.

Now here’s my question: If it is obvious that it is a conflict of interest and creates the appearance of corruption for judges to decide the fates of contributors—and it is—why do we allow elected legislators to do it?

11 thoughts on “Ethics Hero: New York Courts

  1. I would like a second paragraph that makes it a crime for the litigants not to mention the donations when they become aware of the assigned judge. Is the court supposed to research the donation history of all people on record as involved in a case?

  2. Regarding politcians, I fail to see the difference between campaign donations (including free trips and football tickets) and bribes. Of judges, I am reminded of the story of the judge who disclosed at the beginning of the case, “I have received $10,000 from the plaintiff to decide in his favor and $15,000 from the defendant to decide in his. I think the only fair thing to do is to return $5,000 to the defeendant and decide the case on the merits.”

    • They are bribes, absolutely. We just have convinced ourselves that the system can’t work without them. I don’t believe it, and never have. Remove all limits on contribution, make disclosure mandatory, and require that no elected official may vote on a matter of direct interest to a contributor, corporate or otherwise.

          • Better, but what if both sides donate?

            What about donations after the fact or if someone donated money in 1982?

            Simplifying the rules isn’t as easy as simplifying the rules.

            My personal option would be to put pretty low caps on donations, but allow everyone to vote however they choose.

  3. It’s pretty clear that our Founders just had no idea about the length to which public service could be corrupted. It IS called “public service” after all. But perhaps they had a glimmer of the future when they proscribed that Supreme Court Justices be appointed for life, thus making them (they hoped) impervious to bribery, payola, election requirements, etc.

    My question is this: WHERE ARE THE VOTERS IN ALL THIS? My district in Northern Virginia has reelected the vermin Jim Moran over and over again, when his dubious ethics, outright acceptance of bribes, etc., is in the news with astonishing regularity. (N.B., Moran’s receipt of an unsecured $500,000 loan from Bank of America just before a major banking bill came before the House.)

    WE are responsible here. If they’re crooks, toss them out. But unfortunately one has to pay attention to more than ideology and demogoguery to do so. As perhaps I mentioned previously, this takes time and effort and we are an undeniably lazy society, at least when it comes to our duties as citizens.

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