Super Lawyers
William C. Altreuter

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman gave his annual State of the Judiciary speech today. The part I like best is the announcement of a new court rule that would require the recusal of judges from the cases of attorneys or litigants from whom the judges have received large campaign contributions ($2,500 or more from individuals and at least $3,500 from firms or multiple parties) within the previous two years. That's not great, but it is a step in the right direction, and it at least acknowledges that there is a problem.

Here's the thing: In small counties -- that is to say, in most of the state-- judicial campaigns shouldn't be that expensive. They are probably artificially expensive in Western New York. Contributions to judicial campaigns are bribes, but not so much in the obvious way. Generally speaking the lawyers who write the checks aren't getting any traction with the judge, but the judge is paying for the party endorsement, and maybe that benefits the lawyer or the firm with political juice down the line. In theory the judge doesn't know who paid what, but count on it, the chairman of the party whose line the judge is running on does. That's typically where the money goes: to the party. Judges aren't buying lawn signs, they are paying consultant's fees for other people's campaigns. Let's recall how Joseph Makowski got to be a judge.Nobody likes to talk about it, but back when Mr. Makowski was in the news the Buffalo News' political columnist spelled it out:

"The judge, you recall, arrived at the bench in a time-honored way -- he gained the favor of the Erie County Democratic chairman. Back in 1998 when Makowski was elected, he served as the party’s chief fund-raiser. That, combined with the mutual interest of the Democratic and Republican chairmen, earned him bipartisan backing and guaranteed his election.
'But Makowski believed he had a further obligation --this one to the system that got him there.
"He raised $33,575 for his campaign--even after his election was guaranteed. He gave $27,535, or 72 percent of what he raised, to the two parties and other campaigns -- the highest percentage for any State Supreme Court candidate that year.
"Makowski paid $9,000 in various ways to Erie County Democrats, $7,500 to Erie County Republicans, $2,000 to a fund supporting Democratic gubernatorial candidate Peter Vallone, $1,100 to State Senate Democrats, $1,000 to Senate candidate Chuck Schumer, along with other donations.
"In addition, Makowski and his wife contributed $5,100 of their own funds to the Assembly campaigns of Susan Peimer and Brian Higgins -- top Democratic priorities that year.
"Makowski even paid a headquarters staffer $3,400 in consulting fees for a campaign in which he had no opponent."

That's where the money goes when you write your check for $250 clams to "Friends of Some Lawyer Who Wants To Be A Judge" or "Friends of Judge Cross-Endorsed Guy".

The threshold Chief Judge Lippman has created is too high when you think about it that way, although at least it undercuts some of the muscle large firms have when it comes to raising scratch for politics.

| Comments:
NC has a great rule wherein our Judges, both sitting and first runners, pledge to run on a nonpartisan ticket using a State printed brochure sent to every registered voter well before the election. This brochure uses only money provided by a dedicated check-off fund created on NC tax returns for their campaigns. Thier educational background, law experience and brief statements as to their "love of the constitution" usually including "strict construction of" as code if they are very "conservative".

The Political Parties are free to vet these hopefuls themselves and offer lists of the candidates they think will do the best job. This year I caught two of our poll workers, both Republicans, supplying their party's list to voters at the machines. I told them off but it was too late. Nevertheless, a couple of the candidates we liked did get in. Yay!

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