New York's elected judges will be barred from presiding over a case if the lawyer, plaintiff or defendant in that case has made any contribution of $2,500 or more in the judge's judicial election campaign during the two years prior to the trial, the state's top judge said.
Jonathan Lippman, the chief judge of the New York State Court of Appeals, said the new measure will not necessitate the affected judges to recuse themselves as the cases will not be assigned to them in the first place.
By this new rule, the judiciary in New York will be the first in the country to systemically address this problem at its source, Lippman said in his 2011 State of the Judiciary address in Albany on Feb. 15.
Later, Lippman told reporters that the measure was taken to maintain the public's faith in our impartiality. The majority of the state's nearly 1,000 judges are elected.
I'm not accusing anyone, the judge said. But it's an appearance issue. The point is the public feels there is an appearance of impropriety. We're the neutral arbiters…as a policy, we will not assign those cases.
The new rule has been approved by the Administrative Board of the Courts, the policy-making body that consists of the chief judge and presiding justices of the four appellate departments in the state. It was adopted on Feb. 1 but will not go into effect for 60 days during which public comment on the issue has been invited.
Following the public comment period, logistics will be worked out under the direction of Ann Pfau, the chief administrative judge. Some of the issues that will be looked into are when the two years starts to run and how the court staff will check on contributions.
The drive for scrutiny of contributions to judicial campaigns has gained momentum since 2003, when a commission appointed by the previous chief judge, Judith S. Kaye, reported on the the problematic nature of having judges raise money from the lawyers that appear before them.
In 2005, a Surrogate's Court judge in Brooklyn, Michael H. Feinberg, was removed partly for awarding $9 million in legal fees from estates to a friend who was a political contributor, while in 2008, a City Court judge in Rochester was reprimanded for who was running for State Supreme Court was admonished for asking a lawyer who appeared before her for political backing from the bench, though she did not ask for a contribution.
Primary contests for judicial positions in some states like New York, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Illinois and Alabama can cost a candidate anything upwards of $75,000.